When starting a new job, a popular piece of advice is to avoid two topics of conversation; religion and politics. That’s because those subjects tend to divide more than they create bonds. It can be very easy for political films to suffer that first-day-faux-pas fate. When Oliver Stone had the reigns of a George W. Bush feature, even The View ladies fully expected a left-screeching education piece (or at least Elisabeth did). Instead, he delivered a rather watered-down portrait that didn’t really seem to say anything in particular.
More than other genres, the added danger with politics on screen is balance while staying on message. With The Iron Lady, we’re dealing with a figure just old enough to reach mythical status, but still recent enough to remain relatively fresh in memories. Margaret Thatcher was the UK’s longest serving Prime Minister since the late 1800s (and only female). Her years in office were defined by a no-nonsense approach to negotiations and a perceived iron-fist when it came to tough decisions. Rightly or wrongly, there is as much praise for Thatcher as there is criticism.
The paradox for some with the film, however, will be the very same thing that will likely bring them to the cinema in the first place. Saint or demon, Thatcher is an intriguing character. This is a film about the intricacies of human behaviour when our foundations inevitably begin to give way as age encroaches. In my mind, I found it difficult to reconcile a woman who oversaw the implementation of Section 28 with the frail lady presented to us. But isn’t that theme of contradiction rife throughout all our lives?
As a politician, Margaret Thatcher was unshakeable and impenetrable. Yet none of her political prowess could prepare her for the isolation that age and grief brought. For a lady so used to having things a certain way – her way – this became her private war. At least that’s how it is presented to us by director Phyllida Lloyd, reuniting with Meryl Streep after the radically different Mamma Mia!. Granted, the fact that this is an emotionally driven film means that there is little basis for much of the content in reality. But the film isn’t trying to push that angle.
Meryl Streep has developed an odd ability to create Oscar buzz simply for waking up in the morning. Personally, I can understand why. While I’m certainly not a fan of stuff like Mamma Mia! (the film equivalent of a jager-bomb), no matter what role she’s in, Streep has a god-given talent for relating to an audience and making them understand exactly what her character is feeling – and she does it without any hint of having to try. She may have the annoying habit of turning down important and serious arty films in favour of Julie & Julia, but you know what? The world loves her. And with a very large thanks to her breakdown in the kitchen in The Hours, so do I.
As Thatcher, Meryl Streep delivers yet again. She’ll probably be Oscar-nominated again, and I’d say deservedly so. Some moments do tend to get a little campy (especially a scene opposite the US Secretary of State), but just watch some clips of the real Thatcher. When she’s riled, she does slip slightly into angry drag queen mode (see below clip). From someone who’s tastes tend to lean towards quieter, more subtle films, I would have appreciated some more smaller moments in place of the at times blaring heart-string tugging and emotional cue cards, but that’s all in retrospect. As an experience, the film won’t have you discussing religion and politics at work. Unlike Thatcherism, it won’t divide audiences or incite tidal opinions. And that’s because it’s a human story, and we all relate to that. I was slightly sceptical about this film, but it lured me in and made me feel for a lady whose human side I otherwise probably wouldn’t have given much thought.