The Iron Lady – Mettle fatigue: Meryl Streep shows Maggie in her prime and decline

The Iron Lady - Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

Revered and reviled with equal fervour, Margaret Thatcher is easily the most divisive figure in recent British history – which makes it a certainty that this controversial biopic starring the incomparable Meryl Streep will ruffle feathers all along the political spectrum.

Neither hagiography nor hatchet job, The Iron Lady won’t please Thatcher lovers nor haters but deserves consideration for Streep’s magnificent performance. Reuniting with Mamma Mia director, Phyllida Lloyd, Streep gets Thatcher’s voice, look and manner spookily right, but her acting goes beyond impersonation to inhabit the role in a way few would have thought possible.

The sheer brilliance of Streep’s performance will act as a provocation for many, as will the very fact that the film – scripted by playwright Abi Morgan, creator of The Hour – dares to depict Thatcher as a human being and not an evil monster. Even more contentiously, the film seeks sympathy for its subject by portraying her struggling with the onset of dementia in lonely old age. Thatcherphobes will reject the sympathy; Thatcherphiles will recoil at the indignity.

Thatcher’s present-day mental decline, however, is central to the film, giving the screenplay its focus and explaining its lack of political bite. We see Thatcher alone in her Belgravia flat, benignly haunted by hallucinations of her dead husband, Denis, played with puckish humour by Jim Broadbent; and we see her career filtered through the distorting lens of her own Alzheimer’s-stricken mind.

The Iron Lady - Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe

So we get the story of Thatcher’s rise and fall from her own point of view, with the film flitting back and forth through the key events of her life – her struggle as a young lower-middle-class woman (played at this stage by Alexandra Roach) to gain a foothold in the hidebound post-war Conservative Party; her leadership bid and image makeover, supervised by mentor Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell); 1979 election victory; Falklands War; miners’ strike; Brighton bombing; and her eventual political downfall, pushed over the edge by Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) and Michael Heseltine (Richard E Grant).

Given that this history is entirely shown from Thatcher’s perspective it shouldn’t be surprising that the narrative doesn’t give more space to her detractors. Indeed, the nearest the film comes to a critique is when Broadbent’s Denis suggests that it is not duty but ambition that drives her. As for more dissenting voices, they don’t get a hearing. For many, these omissions will make the film untenable, but Lloyd and Morgan (neither of them natural Thatcher sympathisers) are attempting to tell a different story. How well they succeed is debatable but Streep’s remarkable performance of Thatcher in her prime and in her decline truly deserves applause.

On general release from Friday 6th January 2012.

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