It might not be strictly inevitable, if you fictionalise a famous person’s life on film, that you end up making a hagiography. But it seems probable that if you go to the trouble and expense of recreating history, and casting a lead as prestigious as Meryl Streep, then your subject is likely to emerge, if not glorified, then at least somewhat ennobled by the gaze of the lens.
Written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady turns out to be neither hagiography nor hatchet job, but a sober, well-intentioned attempt to humanise its subject – and who better to humanise her, to add vulnerability to the loftiness, than the hallowed Streep? Her Thatcher is an extraordinary performance: an uncanny impersonation, and then something more. Streep plays Thatcher at three phases of her life, notably the all-conquering premier, and the cabinet minister yet to become her – still trembly of voice and uncertain of destiny, her ever-so-commonsensical enthusiasm not yet fanaticism.
Streep catches the flashes of anxiety hovering around the front teeth, the micro-flickers of the eyes that peer cautiously from behind the mask of determination. It’s only towards the end, however, as she berates Geoffrey Howe like a headmistress humiliating a fourth former, that Streep reveals the patronising contempt and feral punitiveness that made Thatcher so chilling.
But there’s a third Thatcher, and here’s where Streep and the film are most imaginative: we first meet the ex-PM as a fragile old woman with Alzheimer’s, fixated on the past that’s moved on without her. Here Lloyd and Morgan are doing an “Ozymandias” number, depicting the vanity of earthly power: Thatcher is Napoleon, exiled in her own mortality. This is the film’s best idea: to start off with the elderly Baroness, fussed over by daughter Carol (Olivia Colman in flounces, looking as if she’s dressed for Abigail’s Party) and imagining that her late husband Denis is still at her side.
This Denis (a raffish Jim Broadbent) is a jovial spectre, always ready to mock Margaret’s imperiousness, cheer her with a funny walk or remind her of their youthful romance. This framing device works so well that you almost wish the whole film had been about the elderly Margaret visited by a chain of phantoms: Augusto Pinochet perhaps, or a cortege of miners rattling accusatory lanterns.
Mostly, though, the film comprises conventional career flashbacks. Yet this isn’t really a political narrative, more a depiction of success against the odds. We see young Margaret Roberts (a very convincing Alexandra Roach), stirred by the precepts of her grocer father; in a wartime air raid, she pluckily rushes to save the butter while bombs fall. Later, Margaret defies the snobbish status quo, particularly its male representatives, to elbow down the door of privilege and claim her due. This is Thatcher as feminist heroine: she intends to remain her own woman, Margaret warns Denis when he proposes: "I cannot die washing up a teacup!").
But we soon realise that as well as being, apparently, the only woman in political history, Margaret is the only full-blown character on the battleground, and her only true cause is herself. She has no real political opponents, either on the left, where Michael Foot (Michael Pennington) is the only recognisable figure, or in her party. Assorted pinstriped grandees are massed together in the credits only as "Cabinet Ministers". Edward Heath is played by a dewlapped John Sessions; in a terribly heavy-handed moment, his bletherings of "compromise ... compromise ..." are drowned out in Thatcher's ears by Daddy's resounding precepts. Richard E Grant is heroically coiffed as Michael Heseltine, and Anthony Head is rather fine as a woolly, mumbling Howe, but we never sense that Thatcher is doing anything other than tilt righteously at an indeterminate wall of insipid maleness.
Meanwhile, there's no Pinochet, the barest blink of Reagan. And where are the ghouls we shudder to recall: Tebbit, Keith Joseph? There's no Left, either, no Arthur Scargill: only shots of angry miners and shaggy Spartists battering at Thatcher's limo windows.
British though it is, The Iron Lady feels American in its fixation on strength of character, on the pursuit of personal destiny. Thatcher is simply the woman who stuck to her guns and, right or wrong, is at least admired for her resolve. And even if the script doesn't tell us outright to revere her, Thomas Newton's predictably soaring score implicitly does just that.
Lloyd cuts in archive clips of the miners' strike and police beating poll tax demonstrators, yet we get no sense of the damage and misery that Thatcher's regime caused. The meaning we take away is that this was a hell of a woman who, like it or not, generated intense controversy and lots of dynamic news footage. Better turbulent times than dull ones, eh?
The film's least convincing aspect is its intimation of a secret sorrow underlying Thatcher's story, of a human cost she had to pay for success. But it doesn't emerge as much of a cost, really. It's suggested that Denis and the children might have felt a bit neglected at times. Otherwise this Margaret, with her doting husband and catalogue of single-minded victories, is the epitome of the Cosmo dream, the Woman Who Has It All (even, we learn, a tender heart and a soft spot for Rodgers and Hammerstein). In the end, The Iron Lady has nothing to say about its subject, except that she was of iron, but still a lady. And she did it her way. Perhaps a better title would have been Triumph of the Will.
Jonathan Romney takes a canter on Steven Spielberg's War Horse