A little old lady shuffles to a corner shop to buy some milk, surprised at the price of it. But back home the security folk are receiving a rollocking for letting Margaret Thatcher out unsupervised. Suffering from dementia she is all too aware of her daughter Carol’s whispered concerns. But Thatcher is an iron lady with a will of her own, comforted by the imagined presence of her late husband Denis. Pootling around the flat, Margaret’s memory flits across the decades and brings to life the rise and fall of a grocer’s daughter.
From this constrained setting Phyllida Law (Mamma Mia) spins a surprisingly cinematic experience and one that gets right inside you. Inspite of the potential obstacles – Thatcher’s notoriety, Meryl Streep’s much-touted portrayal of her – The Iron Lady succeeds as a vivid evocation of a period and a person. In so doing, it cleverly unlocks the audience, bringing them face to face with their own families, fears and foibles.
TV productions of Thatcher’s rise and fall have hit our screens in recent years. But this one is markedly different. Controversial for imagining Mrs Thatcher’s current state of mind, it’s delicately done. Taking in Thatcher’s girlhood and courtship, she’s humanised. Alexandra Roach (Suspicions of Mr Whicher) plays young Margaret with a flinty yet vulnerable spirit. The relationship with the young Denis is sweetly done. Her political awakening and first attempts at election are insightful: it wasn’t so much her being a woman that worried the Tory leadership, but her being a shopkeeper’s daughter.
When Meryl Streep steps forward as the adult Margaret, the film wavers only for a moment until you forget you are watching anything other than Thatcher herself. Comedic touches as Margaret is advised by Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell) to lose her high pitched voice yield inevitably to heartache as Neave is assassinated by the IRA. Law’s film keeps the tone unsettled.
Imaginatively scripted by Abi Morgan (TV’s The Hours), The Iron Lady plays with time, with events occurring out of order, sparked only by Thatcher’s fitful memory. It keeps the film fresh and unexpected – a hard task when we think we know the story. The Brighton bombing, the race and poll tax riots, the miners' strike and the Falklands War are all brought to the screen. But at the heart of it all is Thatcher’s decision-making, the personality that became her Achilles heel and the tendency to bully and humiliate her Cabinet - all of which ultimately led to her downfall.
Streep confounds her critics, superlative as the aged Thatcher, losing her mind and lost to grief and loneliness. Tapping into everyone’s fear for their parents and their own ageing and infirmity, The Iron Lady is as much about us as it is about Thatcher herself.
Jim Broadbent takes some getting used to as Denis, but his comedic flair is given full throttle. And there’s a raft of acting talent on show: Amanda Root, Michael Cochrane, John Sessions (Edward Heath), Anthony Head (a wonderfully wounded Geoffrey Howe) and Richard E Grant (Michael Heseltine). Outstanding though is Olivia Colman (Rev, Tyrannosuar, Hot Fuzz) as Carol, giving a heartrending portrayal of pain and incapacity in the face of her mother’s decline.
Streep and Law worked together on Mamma Mia. That film was shot through with humanity and colour. But here the colour and humanity work a more lasting spell: funny, warm, tragic and challenging. The most controversial aspect? The iron lady is human after all.