The Iron Lady is thoroughly broken at its most fundamental level.

From the framing device it employs in its narration to the incidents in Margaret Thatcher’s life it chooses to focus upon to the inclusion of her husband, Denis Thatcher, as a ghost, the film is full of bad choices made and decisions taken. I’m afraid I can’t think of many positive things to say about it.

The film opens in 2008, against the backdrop of the Islamabad Marriot Hotel bombing. Margaret Thatcher (played by Meryl Streep) is elderly and frail. She is supposed to stay confined to her house as she’s suffering from dementia and is prone to hallucinatory visions of her now-dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), and nightmares of key events in her life – such as the Falkland Islands war. Through flashbacks we see Margaret at multiple stages in her life, from an adolescence spent working in her father’s grocery store in Grantham to her early years in politics when she tries to fit in as a female in a male-dominated world to her time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Margaret Thatcher is one of the most interesting figures of the twentieth century. Her rise to fame is prime cinematic material and the sheer amount of controversy that various decisions she took generated could easily result in immensely entertaining drama.  So, there was some excellent and explosive material to be mined here but sadly, Abi Morgan’s script is too pedestrian to make use of – or do justice to – any of that. The screenplay is inept and turgid, filled with choices the logic behind which is as baffling as the result boring.

An accurate recreation of my mood after making it to the film's end

First of all, the framing device. While it’s easy to see the themes at play because of which it is employed (namely, to show the price Thatcher had to pay for her period in power), it’s very badly executed… to the point that one begins to question why it was even used at all. Similarly, the way the film depicts Lady Thatcher’s husband, Denis, is cringe-inducing. One minute he’ll be grinning while wearing a pink turban (a moment that has some basis in reality. Not that its awfulness is excused) and another he’ll be blowing a party streamer in Margaret’s face. His eccentricities are exaggerated with a stunning tactlessness to form a character who’s terribly annoying. Morgan even shamelessly twists reality to create some tension here. Denis – who in life was extremely supportive of Thatcher’s political ambitions – here throws a tantrum and berates her for her ambition, going so far as to call her “insufferable.” To make matters worse, this frustration vanishes almost instantly and Denis goes back to becoming arm candy for Thatcher.

Then, the screenplay forgoes any deep insight or exploration of the politics Margaret Thatcher engaged in, instead opting to take the easy way out and make just about everything a misplaced rallying cry for feminists. In the real world, a lot went in to the decision to retake Falkland Islands from Argentina. Unfortunately, the film dispenses all of that politics hogwash with one sweep of the arm and we’re instead treated to Streep’s Thatcher justifying the war initiative by stoically telling the US ambassador that, as a woman, she “has done battle every day of her life.” We also hear multiple mentions of how Thatcher being a woman will make it hard for her to make a mark in politics but we don’t actually see that happening. It’s all tell, no show – one of the worst and weakest writing tricks ever.

Director Phyllida Lloyd has just one feature film credit to her résumé, Mamma Mia! She does, however, have a lot of experience in directing theater which may explain why The Iron Lady feels just so stagey. There’s little verve, visual or otherwise, to the mise en scène of the film. Moreover, there is no dearth of baffling choices in this field either. For example, in the scene where our protagonist comes to 10 Downing Street after being named Prime Minster, footage of Meryl Streep speaking to the press is intercut with archival footage of the real Margaret Thatcher shaking hands with supporters. Not only is there little – if any – logic for this mix but it is also very clumsily done, as you only see Real Thatcher from her back (for obvious reasons) which gets disorienting five seconds in.

If ever there were an award for Most Unnecessary Ghost in a Film...

Meryl Streep has won loads of awards for her work as Margaret Thatcher. She certainly looks, sounds and walks like the contentious leader (that Oscar for Makeup wasn’t undeserved) but that’s about it. It may very well be because of the constrained script, but there’s very little beneath the surface to Meryl’s Thatcher beyond the most clichéd conflicts that can be thought of (a woman in a man’s world. Repeat ad nauseam). Jim Broadbent is infuriating as Denis. As explained earlier, his character is grating to begin with and Broadbent doesn’t bring his usual likable charm to the role to offset things. The supporting cast is decent enough, but no one stands out.

The Iron Lady had tonnes of potential but the incompetence of the people in key positions behind making it handicaps it. In its final incarnation, it’s too simplistic, too slow and too slight.

(1.5/4)

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Photo Credit: The Weinstein Co.