The Iron Lady (2011)

Rating: B+

Dir: Phyllida Lloyd
Star: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Olivia Colman

The furore earlier this year surrounding Margaret Thatcher, and her death, reminds us that there hasn’t been a more divisive person in British politics, certainly in my lifetime. Some revere her; others loathed Thatcher with a venom it’s hard to comprehend. Me, I’m kinda in the middle: she was the kind of strong leader the country had needed in the late seventies, when the pendulum had swung too far one way, but certainly overstayed her welcome by the end, alienating just about every one in the country. This film does a very good job of portraying that ambivalence. It starts at the end, with Margaret amiably chatting to her husband, Denis (Broadbent), even though he had died many years previously, showing her decline into dementia, a result of Alzheimer’s.

It’s an odd way to set a tone, leaving the viewer wondering how she could have ever been the most powerful woman in the world. Rather more successful are the flashbacks to her as a young adult (Roach), inspired by her father to go into politics, but finding that path a harsh one for her sex. You probably do need some knowledge of British history to piece together the fragments, as there’s not much in the way of a coherent timeline. But the acting is so damn good, it’s entirely gripping, regardless of any flaws it may have for non-British viewers, though it is occasionally fast and loose with the facts, to no real purpose, e.g. Thatcher wasn’t anywhere around when Airey Neave was assassinated.

As someone whose formative years were basically Thatcher’s era – her time as Prime Minister ran from when I was 13, through to 24 – it generated a flood of memories, good and bad. While the makers have been criticized for not taking a stronger position, for or against their subject, I’d be a lot less interested in a portrayal of Thatcher which demonized or sanctified her. Instead, this treads a difficult line with much skill and ends up as a humanizing portrait, thanks largely to a spooky performance from Streep. It reminds us that, beneath all the history, she was a real person with actual emotions – difficult though some of her critics might find that to believe!