Review: The Iron Lady ***

Guaranteed to offend many, disappoint even more and appeal to very few, The Iron Lady is a peculiar hybrid of quasi biopic and outright fantasy in which Meryl Streep tries hard to achieve the ultimate portrayal of Margaret Thatcher.

But who can accept a portrait that veers from youthful flashback to modern-day fly-on-the-wall docudrama via fleeting glimpses into the high points of Thatcher’s tenure as PM? Crucially – fatally – too much emphasis is placed on Mrs T’s delusional hallucinatory conversations with her deceased husband as, aged and frail, she descends into her own world.

Like Michael Moore’s cowardly attack on Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, The Iron Lady is an exercise in bushwhacking. The target is a figure that for years has polarised opinion – from within her own party to the gardens, streets and coalfields of Britain.

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Legend or loathsome individual, take your pick. But Maggie should not be sidelined. And that is what occurs in Phyllida (Mamma Mia!) Lloyd’s film in which an elderly woman is thrown to the wolves. This is Maggie in her twilight years, befuddled and living on memories of past glories.

Streep as Thatcher relives her greatest triumphs alongside a dead Denis, home movies and a fractured memory. In some respects it is a love letter to Maggie – her ambition, charisma, values, refusal to compromise, her declaration of war on the working classes and that overriding sense of destiny. In that respect, it is a clarion call to modern Tories.

But if this is meant to be a celebration, it fails. This is a study of the titan in decline. Scenes of Maggie at her height will please the Tory heartland, and vignettes depicting the Falklands War and the Poll Tax stand-off show the Iron Lady at her most intractable.

Streep, of course, delivers another extraordinary portrait that eschews any risk of caricature or impersonation. Of course there are the tools of the actor’s trade – wigs, false teeth, and a wardrobe full of blue outfits – but Streep (as the middle-aged Thatcher) is superb, particularly her rendering of Maggie’s 1979 reading of the St Francis of Assisi poem as she enters Number Ten.

Scurrying around her are a gallery of familiar faces: Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe, Julian Wadham as Francis Pym, Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine, and Nicholas Farrell as Airey Neave. Olivia (Tyrannosaur) Colman is quite brilliant as Carol Thatcher; though I venture the real Carol may not quite recognise herself or her mother.

Then there is Jim Broadbent as the older Denis Thatcher. Neither his performance nor his inclusion fits this odd film. In fairness he can do little with a role that is conjured from screenwriter Abi Morgan’s imagination.