In Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone neatly lampooned the film convention of the montage (“… show us a passage of time / we’re gonna need a montage … show a lot of things happening at once / remind everyone of what’s going on … to show it all would take too long / that’s called a montage …”). I wish someone had played this song to Phyllida Lloyd before she began editing The Iron Lady. I didn’t count the number of montages in the film but I’m confident there were at least 10 – perhaps closer to 15. That’s ten to fifteen lengthy sequences of cobbled-together news footage representing selected events that occurred during Margaret Thatcher’s political career, often without introduction, explanation, or follow up. “To show it all would take too long”, I suppose. To show something, though, would at least be courteous. Including one montage is (arguably lazy but) passable; sitting through ten in a row is less like watching a film than having a list of events read out to you.
Not just a list, though: a checklist. With each 80s newsreel, it feels like the filmmakers are ticking off significant historical moments to cover themselves when someone inevitably points out that a (seemingly biographical) film about the most divisive politician in Britain otherwise steers lightyears clear of any political action. Some viewers – and some of the filmmakers – would counter that this isn’t a biopic about Thatcher the politician, but a broadly fictional piece about a once-powerful woman coming to terms with the loss of her power. If that’s the case, the question rings loud and clear: why is it about (the decidedly non-fictional) Margaret Thatcher at all?
Most of the few non-montage sequences to which we’re treated are shot with bizarre – and entirely inappropriate – horror-film techniques: all canted angles, shaky handheld shots and extreme close-ups. In the middle of one such scene we cut to a shot so up close and out of focus that it’s little more than a blur of fleshy colour, before returning to the scene itself. Is this the editing equivalent of a typo? Or a failed attempt to create an effect? The whole film feels misjudged in this way: there are two catastrophic explosions, the consequences of which are dealt with in no more than 20 seconds; we’re constantly reminded of the huge significance of Margaret’s husband’s absence yet his decline and death is never shown and barely referred to; Thatcher’s declaration of war with the Falklands is shown but the consequences are barely felt by her or the audience in the few minutes dedicated to the subsequent events (and guess what film convention the filmmakers use to present those events…). There’s no plot, no narrative – nothing for the audience to hold on to besides Streep’s performance.
Which brings us to the film’s only saving grace. Those pervasive, infuriating montages are interspersed with scenes of Meryl Streep and Alexandra Roach playing Thatcher as, variously, an aspiring politican, an MP and (most of the time) a senile elderly lady. Streep and Roach both do excellent, compelling impersonations of “the iron lady”, Streep with the help of some profoundly detailed prosthetics (though once or twice you get the impression her face wants to move rather more than the make-up allows). There are also one or two touching moments – Thatcher’s blank dismissal to her daughter during an emotional exchange the most notable – but the film is otherwise completely undone by poor editing, lazy plotting and a naïve refusal to acknowledge that Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is neither her attachment to her husband, nor her senility, nor a series of anonymous newsreels. Thatcher’s legacy is her politics; an element that, along with a plot and a structure, is fatally absent from this film.
Oh, and, for good measure: