We review The Iron Lady – A featherlight biopic that’s surprisingly engrossing

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Normally, a movie centred on politics has no appeal for me whatsoever. You have only to turn on the TV news or visit a current affairs site to get your fill (very quickly) of the apparently power-hungry, pompous loudmouths who will shamelessly chop and change alliances and opinions simply to advance their careers. This, of course, when they’re not sniping at each other, abusing their connections and snoozing in parliament. So to spend a chunk of money, as well as 2 hours of your life, watching a film about politicians may seem like a complete waste of time.

With all this in mind, you might expect Margaret Thatcher movie The Iron Lady (official blog) to be an utter bore. The thing is, though, this biopic isn’t boring at all. If you’re looking for in-depth analyses of events like The Falklands War and 80s IRA terrorism, you’ll be disappointed. However, for a movie centred on politicians, The Iron Lady is amazingly watchable, snappy paced, well acted… and quite touching at times. It’s also a real step up for director Phyllida Lloyd, who was previously responsible for the unbearably manic Mamma Mia! In essence, you can think of The Iron Lady as a more accessible sister film to The Queen.

The basic structure of The Iron Lady sees Margaret Thatcher (played by Meryl Streep) as she is today – strong-willed but doddery and dementia-plagued – reflecting on the important moments in her personal and political life. So in a flurry of flashbacks we get to witness Thatcher’s progression from a politically-conscious grocer’s daughter to a middle-class wife, mother and parliamentarian, and then Britain’s first, and to date, only female prime minister – who, with 11 years in office, is England’s longest serving prime minister of the 20th Century.

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Being a biopic, The Iron Lady follows a standard rise and fall pattern, followed by a redemptive conclusion. The audience is made well aware that Thatcher guided Britain through arguably the most turbulent period in its history, for better or worse sticking to her guns as she acted on her Conservative Libertarian views – punting the power of the individual and adopting a hard line approach to welfare and state handouts, insisting it saps people of motivation.

Most tragedies centre on figures that remain obstinate even when they should reconsider, and that’s the case in The Iron Lady as well. Largely due to her uncompromising attitudes, we meet Thatcher as an isolated, lonely and largely forgotten figure who continues to interact with her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), a cheerful and likeable joker who encouraged her political aspirations in life.

As you may have guessed, The Iron Lady isn’t a hard-hitting expose of Thatcher, who was historically a divisive figure, much criticised and caricatured. The film’s chief goal seems to be to highlight the humanity behind the rigid “Iron Lady” image. Whether you are a political icon or not, old age and related debilitation comes to us all. Thatcher emerges onscreen as a stubborn but courageous woman of action, admirable in her defiance of convention. With remarkable inner strength, she lives with her frustrating, wits-sapping condition today just as she continues to live with the decisive choices (and their hit-and-miss results) she made as prime minister.

Of course, as a character Thatcher wouldn’t be as fascinating, and affecting (particularly in the dementia scenes), if it wasn’t for Meryl Streep and her Oscar nominated performance as “Maggie”. Actually, it’s difficult to call it a performance. Much like Helen Mirren in The Queen and Charlize Theron in Monster, the actress completely melts into the character. The audience doesn’t question. There is no Meryl; only Margaret. Streep is that convincing. And the same credit must go to unknown Welsh actress Alexandra Roach, as the younger, but equally strong-willed Thatcher.

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Then again, you can’t deny the transformative power of good make-up and styling, and The Iron Lady is deservedly Academy Award nominated in this category as well.

Plenty of recognisable British actors pop up in The Iron Lady but they have so little screen time in this Thatcher highlights package that it’s more fitting to consider the film as simply a 2 “man” show – centred on Margaret and Denis. If fact, on this note, you’re likely to come out of The Iron Lady with more of a curiosity about Thatcher’s controversial policies than an understanding of them. Just like how various ministers in Thatcher’s inner circle aren’t even named in the movie, there seems to be a presumption on the part of the filmmakers that the audience is already familiar with 1980s British history, and can just fill in the blanks… which obviously isn’t true.

In the end though, I’m still very impressed and, more importantly, emotionally moved by The Iron Lady. It won’t be a film for everyone. However, despite its association with the art cinema circuit, this biopic-lite is highly accessible and entertaining for the common moviegoer. Just don’t go into it expecting an incisive, accurate probe of historical events.

Last Updated: February 16, 2012

Noelle Adams

Sometime Tomb Raider. Full-time Pop Culture fanatic and Geekaissance Woman. Most often spotted outputting Pop Culture opinion pieces, writing fanfic and original genre fare, cosplaying and bringing the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu smackdown. Editor of the Comics and Toys section.

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