The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd, 105 mins (12A)

3.00

Meryl Streep is superb, but the story is of one woman fulfilling her destiny rather than the pell-mell of politics

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.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney takes a canter on Steven Spielberg's War Horse

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there