I was struggling on whether or not I should go see The Iron Lady. One one hand, I had heard the movie hardly touched on Margaret Thatcher’s political career and focused mostly on her reflections as an old, senile woman (see Virginia Postrel’s take). On the other hand, Meryl Streep’s performance has the Oscar buzz, and even Thatcher’s own confidantes were impressed by her uncanny performance. I figured at least we could appreciate good cinema and that, if nothing else, would make our date night salvageable.
Boy, were we wrong.
Yeah, Meryl Streep’s performance was terrific, uncanny, etc. And Jim Broadbent was endearing as her cute, doting, whimsical husband, as he is in every film in which he appears.
The rest of it, cinematically, was a disaster. Reports that the story was essentially about an old woman reflecting on her life were bang on, but no one mentioned the maudlin scenes, the puzzling score choices, or the rambled editing straight out of the Oliver Stone School for Edgy Film Makers, circa 1994.
As pointed out elsewhere, there were plenty of events which were jumbled or completely false throughout the film, but that happens in all biopics. Yet, here we have the first dramatic take on a major public figure, and we have no idea what she did. She’s shown to be a reviled leader in Britain, but if you didn’t know anything about her career, you’d have no idea why the feelings were so intense and heated.
The entire 1980s was shown in a montage. I’m not kidding you. Her relationships with the titans of the age — Reagan, Gorbachev, Pope John Paul II — were briefly shown on screen, if at all. There was no mention as to her trip to Poland which successfully lent support to the Solidarity movement. We don’t hear the name of her biggest political opponents, Labour leader Neil Kinnock or the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, who wasn’t even in the film. It’s like these huge events just … happened, as if she had nothing to do with them.
The whole point of the movie seemed to try to instill the idea that Margaret Thatcher should feel regret or guilt about her career or something. Now, of all the qualities of Lady Thatcher one can think of, good or bad, regret or guilt are probably the last to come to mind. Yet, throughout the film, she is harangued by the ghost of her dead husband who constantly reminds her how she supposedly abandoned them in pursuit of her own selfish political ambitions. And in case you missed it, they even had the scene where her children were crying and banging on her car window just before she left to serve her first term in Parliament. Fuck off, really.
What would have been interesting is if we were able to see how Thatcher developed her resolute moral compass in politics, statesmanship and economics. Instead, we are treated to a young Margaret Roberts idolizing her father — a greengrocer and local mayor — at a political rally, where he is proclaiming much of Thatcher’s later philosophy to his supporters.
Is that it? Was Thatcher such a fervent free marketer because she loved her dad? Could there be a more patronizing portrayal of a powerful woman?
In fact, the whole movie does nothing but confirm old anti-feminist stereotypes. The message is that any woman who has gotten ahead in their career has done so at the expense of their family.
It is said that politics is a man’s game, and nothing in the film does anything to refute this. Take the scenes in Parliament, showing men screaming and throwing their fists in the air in an incomprehensible clamour. What this tells me is that the film’s writer and director clearly don’t have the first clue about politics, debate or rhetoric. These women claim to be feminists, but when given the opportunity to show a strong woman taking on and defeating men at their own game, they fail miserably.
Instead, while Thatcher is shown making an apparently futile attempt to refute the nefarious charges of the opposition, the audience misses out on the charm and the razor wit of the woman who took on the socialists and won.
I would have loved to see Meryl Streep play out Thatcher’s last stand in the House, as seen here:
The only indication we have of Thatcher’s ability was during a scene in the doctors office, when the aging baroness reprimands her caregiver for asking her how she feels. It’s the thoughts and ideas that matter, she says. Thoughts become words, words become action, and so on. I’m afraid, however, that the film makers meant this to be an ironic statement, as was film’s title (no pun intended).
I can only wish that some principled producer out there has seen this film and recognizes the opportunity in creating a biopic worth watching. Maybe Kevin Costner could repeat the effort he made in Thirteen Days, the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bad accents and overly dramatic sequences aside, this particular film was fascinating in that it gave a blow-by-blow account of the infamous game of chicken played between Khrushchev and Kennedy.
There ought to be an alternative to this dribble. Thatcher deserves at least that much. Hell, you already have a proven actor who could handle the part. After all, if Michael Sheen can play a British prime minister twice within a few years (especially since one of these films is more asinine than The Iron Lady), there’s no reason why Streep can’t do the same.
(And any film using a chronological flashback on Thatcher’s life would have to be based on Claire Berlinski’s terrific “There Is No Alternative“, a must-read for all political junkies.)
In short, don’t waste your money on this waste of an opportunity. While Streep is amazing, the film production is amateurish, the history’s bogus, the story is bereft of meaningful information, and the message is insulting to women.
You’d be better off watching something more worthwhile, like The Muppet Show.