The Iron Lady, a new film about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, boasts a stunning performance by Meryl Streep, who seldom presents work that is less than stunning. And the movie overall is effective in presenting Thatcher as a likable but driven and at times contradictory woman who changed the course of British history.
Whether you accept the largely positive view of Thatcher is another matter. In this film, she is a bit flawed but for the most part sympathetically portrayed, with her exceedingly conservative politics shown to be the right thing for their time, though some historians have firmly disagreed. And the film attributes many of her political troubles to a male-dominated establishment never comfortable with taking orders from a woman, particularly one who would deliver those orders in a blunt fashion. This is also at odds with other versions of history; at least one account has noted that, very early on, Thatcher was seen as a promising political star.
At the same time, some Thatcher admirers have questioned the movie’s focus on Thatcher’s present-day dementia (made public in real life by her daughter), which has included memory loss, confusion and, most important for the film, Thatcher’s forgetting that her husband, Denis, died in 2003.
The movie uses Thatcher’s conversations with her dead husband (played by Jim Broadbent) in part to set up flashbacks to the key moments in her life, but also to indicate the horrible sense of loss she is believed to feel now: out of power, in what is reportedly a distant relationship with her son and daughter (though the movie portrays the daughter as close to her), and having to go it alone after a half-century with Denis close by. At the same time, the use of the dementia-driven flashbacks provides the movie a convenient rationale for its presentation of Thatcher’s past; this is not necessarily how things were, but how Thatcher saw them.
In the flashbacks, other actresses play the young Margaret before Streep takes full control of the role, and of British politics. As written by Abi Morgan, the woman who would become the Iron Lady held beliefs instilled both by her working-class upbringing and her grocer-politician father, and kept to those beliefs in defiance even of forces within her own party. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the film is very fond of images that set Thatcher apart, not only showing her as a woman among masses of men, but also as colorfully dressed in the midst of the grays and blacks of other politicians’ suits. She is, in the movie’s view, one of a kind.
Still, the film has a hard time covering the political side of Thatcher’s life — becoming Great Britain’s first female prime minister, instituting draconian measures to revive the economy, leading the nation in the Falklands War — while keeping as strong a grip on the personal side as it wants to. Denis Thatcher fails to become much more than a sketch, here and there in her memories without a clear explanation of what he gave her beyond his constant, comforting presence.
Yet the script and Broadbent capture Denis’ sense of humor, and he is an able jousting mate with Streep. And it is Streep who continually makes the movie more watchable, even humorous, whether Margaret is retooling her image to improve her electability, knocking around foes (or dressing down Alexander Haig), becoming too imperious (and so, in this interpretation, hastening her political demise), or trying to keep a grip on her wits when the past is so vivid and the present so bleak.
Streep is expected to get an Oscar nomination for the film (as Streep is usually expected to get a nomination) and it is deserved. Even when the movie stumbles, Streep pulls it back up, sometimes with no more than a glance.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com and on Facebook and Twitter.