British biopics have been a steady favorite in recent years, offering both compelling character studies and standout performances. Think The Queen (about Queen Elizabeth II) and The King's Speech (about King George VI). The latest British leader to be added to this growing genre is Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

The film begins with an aged Thatcher (Meryl Streep) at home. She's getting ready for the day while chatting with her late husband (Jim Broadbent) - flitting back and forth between memory, dementia, and lucidity.

She overhears the voices of her staff in the hall, whispering concerns about her increasing breaks with reality. But concerns about Margaret—whether they be about her health, her gender, her politics—are nothing new. And neither is her determination to prove all the naysayers and worriers wrong.

Cue the flashback of Margaret as a young girl (played by Alexandra Roach), listening to the progressive politics of her father, a local grocer. At home and in the family business, she learns the value of hard work, the need for wise business practices, the power of her own voice—even her female voice.

She carries this knowledge with her into adulthood and her foray into local politics, where she has to fight to be taken seriously as a woman, and one with working class roots to boot. But she learns how to play these differences as strengths, largely with the help of her husband, Denis (young Denis is played by Harry Lloyd). With his pedigreed background and feisty, fun-loving spirit, he's a great balance to Margaret's humble history and steely determination. Their chemistry is endearing.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

Back in the present day, Margaret's daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) has arrived for a visit. As Carol keeps an eye on her mother's mental state even as she tries to dodge her critical barbs, she also encourages Margaret to finally get rid of her late husband's clothes, which are still hanging in the closet eight years after his death. Margaret's wrestling with Denis' lingering presence in her life, which she finds both comforting and troubling, and her tenuous relationship with her daughter make for some of the most compelling scenes in the film. (In real life, Thatcher, now 86, had several small strokes in 2000, and struggles with ongoing memory loss.)

As Margaret fights with Denis, with Carol, and with herself, she keeps remembering her steady rise in politics—bucking the system all the way to her role as the U.K.'s first female prime minister. We see the situations when her iron will was an asset and the times when it cost her and the nation dearly. Instead of commenting on her political career and taking any sort of side, the film opts instead for a comprehensive look—a decision that stays off people's toes but also muddles the film with too much content.

One of the most effective aspects of both The Queen and The King's Speech is the well-chosen slice of each person's life—a period shown with such depth and detail that it also speaks to the character's whole life. That's what we look to screenwriters and directors for—we want them to focus their lens and thus our attention on the important stuff.

Denis (Jim Broadbent) and Margaret celebrate her victory

Denis (Jim Broadbent) and Margaret celebrate her victory

Instead of this trained eye, The Iron Lady gives us more and more information as the film progresses. By the end of the movie we're simply given montages of news footage about wars and riots—and it becomes a blur of emotionless information. We're oversaturated and unengaged.

This is a shame because Thatcher is a fascinating character—and here, Streep plays the role superbly (in about a 30- to 40-year age span, no less). She gives us a rich performance of a woman navigating her way in a man's world and, in her old age, finding her way in an increasingly befuddled mind. At times the performance almost strays into caricature, but that seems almost inevitable given the voice, the hair, the persona of the source material. And Broadbent is simply endearing as her doting husband, and in a role that will seem familiar to those who saw him in Iris.

Thatcher found her place in a man's political world

Thatcher found her place in a man's political world

There are many interesting themes in The Iron Lady—a woman's rise to power in a man's world of politics, how an iron will can be both a strength and an Achilles heel, how that determination impacts a leader's home life, the turbulent events that occurred during Thatcher's eleven years in office, the devastating impact of dementia, especially on a strong-willed person, and a world leader at that. If only the screenwriters had focused on one or two of these huge issues instead of cramming them all into a comprehensive but shallow rendering of Thatcher's life.

While The Iron Lady is a strong film, in the end both Margaret and Meryl deserve more.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Do you find Margaret likable? Why or why not?
  2. Considering how strong Margaret is, why do you think she has such a hard time letting go of her late husband?
  3. Why do you think Margaret has a dicey relationship with her daughter?
  4. How does Margaret deal with her detractors? Is this effective?
Article continues below
  1. List the times when Margaret's iron will is a good thing as well as when it's a detriment. Think of one of your key attributes. When is it good and when is it bad for you?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Iron Lady is rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity. Most of the violence comes from news footage of wars and riots—and the images are fleeting. Overall it's a pretty clean film. That said, it likely wouldn't keep the interest of younger viewers—save for mature teens, especially those interested in politics.

The Iron Lady
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(3 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for some violent images and brief nudity)
Directed By
Phyllida Lloyd
Run Time
1 hour 45 minutes
Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant
Theatre Release
January 13, 2012 by The Weinstein Co.
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