Guy Lambert on Meryl Streep’s latest role as the ferrous ex-Prime Minister
I have never before been asked to be a film critic, nor had any pretensions in that direction, but the cunning Crispin cornered me at a branch meeting and there I was, catched.
Of course, whilst I have never been a film critic, I find little difficulty, and can claim long experience, of criticising the subject of the film I am reviewing – The Iron Lady.
First a little semantics. Lady is a charged word in English, perhaps particularly so in England, and I shall leave it to my readers (if any) to form their own view of whether Lady Thatcher is appropriately so described.
Iron is a different thing. Those with a rudimentary understanding of metallurgy (A-level Chemistry lost in the mists of time in my case) will remember that iron is a wondrous material, being relatively easy to extract and work, strong and durable –give or take a little rust – and readily available in the British Isles. They will also recall the fatal flaw of iron, which has led to it being replaced in most applications by its alloy, steel. It is brittle and unbending, and its strength is of little use where any flexibility is required. The film confirms a view I have long held: iron – definitely not steel – is the perfect term for the character of Maggie.<
So to the film: I arrived at the Waterman’s for a 4pm Sunday viewing. The cinema was packed, including many of even less tender years than myself plus one or two children who I rather cynically thought had been brought for indoctrination.
As an enthusiastic, if irregular, filmgoer, one of the ways I judge a film is how long it is before I find myself checking my watch. The film started at 4pm on the dot ( a pleasing feature of our local Arts Centre) and I first consulted said timepiece at about 4.50. Fairly average, but the fact I consulted it again at 4.53, 4.57, 5.00 etc might suggest to you that I was finding things tedious. This suggestion would be spot on.
No doubt ‘proper’ critics will wax lyrical about Meryl Streep’s performance as the older Mrs T: I confess I am not a big Streep fan, however I would say that she carried it off OK. Jim Broadbent as Denis (one n – this I know because I named a cat after him) was a great deal more fun and it was generally a pleasure when he was on screen. Alexandra Roach as the young Maggie was altogether too attractive and whilst Harry Lloyd as the young Denis had no sex-appeal (to me) he was fun to watch and I have to confess that I found the proposal scene quite moving.
As to the political content, I would say they tried fairly hard to avoid taking sides. She is shown as resolute and strong, self-confident and irritating, all of which seem pretty close to the truth. That iron analogy is all over the film, in particular in the scene where she insists to the cabinet that the Poll Tax is right and that anyone who opposes it is a coward.
Did it shift my view of Thatcher? A little. Given what she did to the country, it’s easy for an old lefty like me to treat her with unalloyed scorn. However the film reminds you that she did have some remarkable qualities. She had to overcome those prejudices in the Tory party that not only was she a woman but, more damningly, a Grocer’s daughter and whatever we think of her policies and approach (and that Francis of Assisi speech is a classic case of saying one thing then proceeding to do the opposite – a bit like the NHS bill today) that courage of conviction is pretty difficult not to admire.
As to the ethics of producing and releasing this film, I have a deal of difficulty with that. It absolutely feels like a biopic of someone who is already dead and it is perhaps for that reason that I find the large part of the film that is dedicated to portraying her as a frankly bonkers old woman, hallucinating that Denis is still alive, rather dull and unsatisfying. Whether it has any basis in reality I have not a clue, and it is not something that can really be explored while she lives.
Is it worth seeing? Well I suppose it is hard to avoid for those of a political persuasion, but I can’t say I would recommend it. One hundred minutes that had me yawning rather more than I would expect or want and, at the end, not really having learnt much that I didn’t already know.
The Iron Lady is being shown at Watermans, 40 High Street, Brentford, on 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 January, and 1 and 2 February. Phone 020 8232 1010 for tickets.