Margaret Thatcher Gets Lost in ‘The Iron Lady’

by Trey Hock on January 13, 2012

in Print Reviews,Reviews

Going into The Iron Lady I was already skeptical. Meryl Streep in a British biopic about former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher just sounds like a calculated layer cake of Oscar chum.

Thatcher was a divisive and controversial figure, but also a strong and powerful woman in politics at a time when political realm was still an undisputed boys club. In the years after her political career, she suffered from some dementia and wasn’t often seen in public.

Take this character and put it in the hands of Meryl Streep, her very name is often equated with serious acting, and now you’ve got something that seems to be a magnet for Academy gold.

I may be right about the intentions behind making The Iron Lady, but I was surprised by Streep’s performance and director Phyllida Lloyd’s choices, and not in entirely pleasant ways.

I will say that Streep gives an impressive performance. It’s easy to dismiss any role that has an actor adopting an accent and distinctive voice as mimicry and caricature, but Streep does seem to get at something more fundamental in regards to Thatcher. Perhaps it a subtlety of mannerism or a commitment to the general way Thatcher spoke and behaved instead a specific phrase or behavior.

Streep’s performance is often overshadowed by Lloyd’s direction, which I can only describe as bizarre. Lloyd never commits to a visual style for her narrative.

Sometimes The Iron Lady looks like a hard-hitting political drama, like the union busting scenes from Brassed Off or The Full Monty. Other times it looks like a psychological study of a conniving and emotionless tyrant, full of jump cuts and inserts of Streep’s/Thatcher’s disapproving sneer. There are even times when the lighting and framing takes on the air of a magical fantasy as Thatcher talks to her Mary Poppins-ish husband (Jim Broadbent), who acts as a spirit guide as Thatcher looks back and assesses her life.

Perhaps Lloyd’s approach could have turned The Iron Lady into a fascinating pastiche, in which the style shifted to fit the moment, but still maintained enough visual cohesion to carry us through the story. Instead it just feels like a disjointed mess. Each scene disconnected from the next, and it makes it all but impossible to reconcile the young ambitious Thatcher with the obstinate Prime Minister Thatcher with the frail and hallucinatory elderly Thatcher. The visual styles are so distinct these become separate characters instead of facets of a complex whole.

Lloyd somehow manages to make one of the most compelling and polarizing political figures in the late 20th century completely uninteresting by making her neither hateful nor sympathetic. Lloyd achieves the nearly impossible by taking a good performance of an already engaging character and somehow making it into a bland and lifeless shadow by never giving her film any stylistic integrity.

It’s fine if a director wants to occasionally follow their whims to give added vibrancy to a specific scene, but it should never be to the detriment of the entire film. A weird and uninspired disappointment that wastes a surprisingly good performance from a talented veteran, The Iron Lady is a perfect example of how focusing too closely on the individual pieces can sometimes result in the failure of the whole.

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jaime January 13, 2012 at 10:56 am

I was excited about watching this and was disappointed and bored. I thought I might learn something about Margaret Thatcher and I did not. I did catch a bit of set and wardrobe that was interesting, which of course is how I rate movies. But even those things weren’t interesting enough to keep me engaged.


2 Eric Melin January 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Trey- You did a good job of describing the reasons this movie doesn’t work. The “dead husband” device was really, really annoying and dragged the film down.


3 Beck January 19, 2012 at 11:31 pm

In defense of the movie, it seems appropriate the tag here has it written as “misdirection,” or sleight of hand. I contend the film thwarts expectations by moving beyond mere biopic (it’s made for a British audience, and anyway anyone can look up the events of Thatcher’s life) and merely uses her to make larger points about ambition and its eventual loss. Even the title is ironic.

I’m finding it frustrating that Streep is getting all the credit for the film. But it brings up an interesting point about the power of an actor make or break a film. How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

Also, Brassed Off and the Full Monty as hard-hitting political dramas.? I would have gone with Mike Leigh’s Hugh Hopes, but even that’s a stretch. The House of Cards mini-series, streaming on Netflix, is probably the best primer on the drive to occupy 10 Downing Street.


4 Trey Hock January 20, 2012 at 12:46 am


I did mean misdirection as mis-direction, not slight of hand but poorly executed or misguided directing.It didn’t thwart my expectation, but frustrated me in unsatisfying ways. I could see why she was making her choices and yet they were still bad choices.

I also point out the directing as separate for Streep’s performance so I separate the dancer from the dance. To continue the analogy, the dancer executes to the best of her ability a dance that was poorly choreographed.

With Brassed Off and Full Monty I did say scenes, and though both are comedies there are some compelling and dramatic scenes in both centered on the mine closures and unemployment ravishing the countryside at the time. I wasn’t trying to compare the content so much as the tone and style when Thatcher’s car is surrounded by shouting protesters, though now that I think about it both are British, both focus on a period of time when Thatcher was in power, both deal with the direct results of Thatchers policies.

Did you write a review of The Iron Lady, Beck? If you did, post a link. I’d love to read it.


5 Beck January 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Hey Trey,
I just thought the missing hyphen was a good way to make my point.

That “bizarre” style as you call it is often used in British film and television. Lots of switching from POVs and “magical” interludes. It’s cheeky!

If you’re still interested, my review of the film can be found here:



6 Trey Hock January 24, 2012 at 9:59 pm


Thanks for the link. I dug your take on ‘Iron Lady.’ I still disagree, but I enjoyed your argument. Feel free to argue with me and post links to your reviews anytime.


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