On the surface, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher might not seem like a good subject for a biopic. She wasn’t flamboyant, there’s no romantic back story, and she was more known for her steel will than her diplomacy. In these politically charged times, however, The Iron Lady is surprisingly timely, with its profile of the greengrocer’s daughter who rose through — fought her way through — the British political ranks to become one of the most powerful women in the Western Hemisphere.
The narrative roughly follows her personal history, starting with her school years and showing how she rose to become the first female Member of Parliament, then Prime Minister of Britain for eleven years, during which time she wrestled with the recession of the 1980s, the birth of the European Union, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, a massive miner’s strike, the Argentine fight over the Falkland Islands and the bombings and rebellion of the Irish, including frequent bombings — emotionally portrayed in the film — from the Provisional Irish Republican Army.
As Thatcher, Meryl Streep is superb. From her makeup and wardrobe to her speech and the behaviors and mannerisms of a woman in her forties, fifties and older, Streep vanishes in her portrayal of the Iron Lady and it’s a wonder to behold in an era where films are about their stars as much as they are about the characters in the movie. It’s the anti-Tom Cruise, if you will.
The film opens with a touching scene where Thatcher is retired, her husband Denis (well played by Jim Broadbent) has passed away a few years earlier but is still very much a tangible, physical presence to her, and she has avoided her minders and gone down to the local grocers for a pint of milk. Shocked at the price, she comes back and discusses it with Denis. Except he’s been dead for a few years at that point to everyone but Thatcher. Dementia? Yes, but also seemingly the logical consequence of a life well spent on public service, though her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) might not entirely agree when her Mum’s still correcting her in public.
In addition to a fascinating and reasonably neutral political narrative that focused on Thatcher and the cost her family paid in her single-minded devotion to her service to Britain, The Iron Lady was surprisingly touching and more than once I felt a wave of emotion sweep over me as I watched her children fight for attention, a beloved advisor killed in an IRA bombing, or her long-suffering husband Denis sit on the sidelines as he realized yet again he couldn’t compete with her passionate love of service.
Still, the best part of The Iron Lady is Streep’s performance. It’s truly that good. The film itself is a touching and engaging biopic, but will ultimately be of more interest to students of history and those who seek a sense of the battles she had to fight as the first woman Member of Parliament and the first female head of a Western Power. Well worth watching in this context, it’s a reminder of the power of cinema to let us peek into the life of a powerful, amazing woman.