The early 1980s were difficult times in Britain. Unemployment, recession, trade union strikes, IRA terrorism – those were hard times when Margaret Thatcher became the country’s first woman prime minister in 1979. By the time she quit in 1990, the Russians had fondly dubbed her The Iron Lady and Britain had changed irrevocably.
Much of the drama and trauma that the nation underwent during her tenure in the 1980s is glossed over in director Phyllida Lloyd’s venture. A few placards in grainy television footages, for instance, isn’t enough to capture the famous miner’s strike of 1984-85 which was one of the defining events in her career. The movie merely skims the surface of all that Britain underwent; instead it chooses to focus on the personality of Thatcher. There is no complexity or counterpoint on offer.
Luckily director Lloyd has Meryl Streep in the protagonist’s part. Streep’s magnetic performance makes up for the script’s shallowness. You are simply left marveling what an actor and her makeup artist can achieve with their work. Streep and her long-standing makeup man J Roy Helland — both earned Oscars for their work in the film – almost make us believe as if we are watching the real Thatcher in action.
Streep not only captures the walk, the gait, the voice and the diction of the former British Prime Minister but also the changes in Thatcher’s personality that comes with her growing confidence on the job. The early hesitancy is replaced with authority and arrogance. The sharp physical contrast between Thatcher as Prime Minister and the frail, faltering Thatcher of later years, who keeps talking to her dead husband, is stunning.
But a movie is much more than its actors. The story of a grocer’s daughter who tells her would-be husband, “I cannot die washing tea cups,” who conquers a men’s bastion, who gives the go-ahead to sink the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano during the Falklands war, could easily have been a much more compelling and nuanced narrative.
But Lloyd prefers to rely on the power of the one-liners that Thatcher tossed with abandon like her good friend US President Ronald Reagan — “It is time to put great back in Great Britain,” “Yes, the medicine is harsh, but the patient requires it in order to live, “We will all stand on principle or we will not stand at all.” It sounds good but it doesn’t touch anything deep.
As a movie, The Iron Lady would have been dumped in the category of less-than-satisfying biopics. But Streep and Helland have not only ensured that the movie engages the regular viewer; they have also made it must-watch in every acting workshop; hence an afterlife.
A biographical feature on Margaret Thatcher, the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century. . . .