By Geneva Wright ’14
“It used to be about trying to do something,” says Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) of the political life early on in The Iron Lady. “Now it’s about trying to trying to be someone.”
She might be speaking about her own movie. There is a great deal to like about The Iron Lady: brilliant performances, particularly by Streep; sets and makeup that do a convincing job of recreating late-Cold War Britain; and a sympathetic portrait of one of the great heroes of Reagan-era conservatism. But ultimately, it suffers from weak speculation about who Thatcher is, while avoiding the important question of what she did.
The film opens in the present, with Thatcher as a frail elderly woman “escaping” her suffocating caretakers to buy milk from the corner grocery. Viewers follow her throughout a day in the life of a retired political icon—signing books, attending a dinner party, watching home movies alone at night—while the story of her extraordinary career is told through extended flashbacks.
In a puzzling move, however, the screenwriter chose to depict Thatcher, who has Alzheimer’s disease in real life, experiencing extended hallucinations of her long-dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). He sits across from her at the breakfast table, reads the paper next to her in bed, keeps her awake at night with talk about the past, and generally stands in for every demon and regret that filmmakers imagine Thatcher might face.
Nearly half of the film is spent on this struggle to accept a past that we are never fully shown. In this way, the movie is as much a meditation on growing older as it is on the life of a particular woman. But the creative license seems gratuitous. Thatcher’s career is still within living memory for a large portion of the population; surely a straightforward, factual account would be more engaging to today’s audiences? And, as is the case with any biography with a living subject, isn’t there something inappropriately intimate about unfounded, unfavorable speculation about her marriage?
Critical praise for the film deservedly centers on Streep. Brilliant use of makeup and prosthetics transform her into the image of Thatcher, but the heart and soul of the movie is Streep’s Oscar-winning performance, which manages to capture Thatcher’s refined speech and larger-than-life personality without devolving into caricature. Streep portrays Britain’s “Iron Lady” as a likeable, if flawed woman, whose boundless ambition and authoritative personality are at once an asset and a liability.
It is a pity, then, to see such fine acting wasted on a flat and meandering script, which rushes over the major events of Thatcher’s life in favor of the filmmakers’ pet narrative about the “personal costs” of her career. Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd are virtually wasted in their roles as a young Margaret and Denis; their few but memorable scenes are delightful, and considerably more interesting than endless sequences of an older Thatcher talking to her dead husband.
In place of an intelligent examination of Thatcher’s political career, viewers are given summary montages. Her campaign for leader of the Conservative party is a series of images of Thatcher taking elocution lessons, getting her famous sculpted hairstyle, shaking hands, and making speeches. The election, and her historic ascension as the first female Prime Minister, are almost a blur; one moment her advisors are telling Thatcher that she has a chance of winning, and the next she has won, with very little explanation of how or why this was possible.
Scenes of Thatcher staunchly refusing to compromise on economic policy, no matter what the cost, are placed next to news footage showing the riots, bombings, and turmoil. The Falklands War, whose success brought Thatcher a huge surge of popularity in the early 1980s, is given a bit more screentime; it is followed by a series of triumphant images: patriotic citizens cheering, the return of peace and economic prosperity, Thatcher herself dancing with President Reagan. Then there is the poll tax controversy which would eventually force Thatcher out of office; mentioned but never explained, its ill effects are shown through a frightening image of her car surrounded by angry, violent protesters.
It is interesting to imagine the discussions which must have occurred in liberal Hollywood on how to bring Margaret Thatcher to the big screen. On the one hand, her life is the stuff of inspirational-movie gold: the daughter of a middle-class grocer who worked her way up to become one of the most powerful people in the world, who shattered expectations to become the first female Prime Minister in Great Britain. On the other hand, there is her staunch conservative commitment to patriotism, entrepreneurship, and personal responsibility.
To its great credit, the film neither deifies Thatcher as a feminist martyr nor demonizes her as a conservative monster. The result is a nuanced view of a complex and deeply private woman, but at the cost of representing the principles to which she devoted her life. The Iron Lady seeks to uncover the soul of the woman known for reversing Britain’s cultural and economic decline and standing firm against the forces of communism, but without a fuller depiction of her politics, the picture is sadly incomplete.
My grade: B-