Dir. Phyllida Lloyd, UK/France, 2011, 105 mins
Review by Carol Allen
Many of those who lived through the Thatcher era have strong feelings about the former prime minister. In the late seventies and eighties it was almost heresy among the liberal media to not hate Thatcher, whereas, until they toppled her, most of her fellow Tories worshipped her. So both factions are likely to be critical of the picture of her presented in this film, while director Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan’s approach, which goes more for an attempt to get inside the woman rather than a full assessment of her political career, will fail to satisfy students of political history. But taken as a piece of cinematic drama, it works very well.
The structure of film is that of the “memory play”, approaching the story through Margaret as a confused old woman to whom her late husband Dennis is a still lively and very chatty presence. Through her conversations with his ghost, we move into flashbacks, which tell her story from her beginnings as the “grocer’s daughter from Grantham” who won her way to Oxford university, her battle to establish herself in the world of Conservative politics and her rise to and eventual fall from political power. It is though primarily a personal rather than a political portrait, making no bones about the fact that as a woman Margaret paid a personal price for her power.
Streep is magnificent, particularly as the frail, elderly Margaret, but she gets the character, including in her Iron Lady prime, accurately all the way through. It’s an effective impersonation, with the help of some very skilful make up, but it’s also a real characterization. She’s very moving in her relationship with the dead Dennis (Broadbent). Margaret’s upbringing, which gave her that outspoken, down to earth quality, her value system and her “grocer’s daughter” approach to economics, all of which were in tune with the self reliance and independence of the old fashioned working class, go some way to explaining her rise to power and this part of her life is well sketched in. So too is her meeting, romance and courtship with the young Dennis and the laid back but sensible support he gives to her ambitions. Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd as the young couple strike me as convincing versions of their older selves, though Roach has been criticized by one of Thatcher’s former colleagues for having the wrong colour hair!
One thing the film does very well is acknowledge Thatcher’s achievement of making it in a man’s world. The scenes of young Margaret fighting the male chauvinism of the Tory establishment and her arrival in the House of Commons, where Airie Neave (Nicholas Farrell), later to become her good friend, is the only one to acknowledge her, make the point very strongly and she’s actually rather admirable in her fight first for acceptance and then for power. The film is sympathetic to its subject without being a hagiography. As time goes by we notice the increasing use of the almost royal “we” and the suggestion that after the Falklands, she is starting to go a bit unhinged over Britain’s relationship with Europe and the introduction of the poll tax.
There’s good support from Broadbent in terms of both character and actor and from Coleman as Margaret’s long suffering and patient daughter Carol and some amusing portraits of Thatcher’s colleagues – Richard E. Grant as Michael “Tarzan” Heseltine, John Sessions as Edward Heath and Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe.
If you can put aside your preconceptions of Margaret Thatcher and take this as a piece of drama, it’s an entertaining and often rather moving film with a first class central performance from Streep.