The Iron Lady

The consensus of the notable film critics, and by many film bloggers, seems to be that The Iron Lady offers a fascinating impersonation of Margaret Thatcher by the Grand Dame of actresses, Meryl Streep. But although Director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan provide us with a series of interesting images, an impressive yet not particularly memorable musical background, along with a rather creaky and well worn platform of flashbacks mixed with the present – yet they somehow fail to take a stand on Margaret Thatcher – the person, or Thatcher – the three term Prime Minister of Great Britain.

I’m in a similar quandary of trying to figure out what they want us to think of Mrs. Thatcher. But I also have a question: A.O. Scott of the New York Times, and the venerated film critic Roger Ebert, and many other film critics and bloggers have used the term ‘impersonation’ referencing Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. How come, no one referred to Leonardo DiCaprio ‘impersonating’ J.Edgar (Hoover) in the same way?

While you ponder that – the film played before a theater that was about 75% filled for a 10:45 AM show on this rather chilly Saturday morning in Sarasota, FL. The crowd was mostly senior citizens, and I believe a good many of them were British. The crowd was quiet and well behaved – I didn’t detect even one cell phone in use during the film. As we filed out, the crowd was rather reserved and quiet. Or maybe I should say deferential.

There’s no doubt that Thatcher was not only dynamic, but she was a lightning rod who both united and divided the citizens of her country. But Britain was always so class-conscious. Even back in the 50’s when Margaret was still Margaret Roberts and looking to use her mind, and her degree from Oxford, as an entry way into the world of politics, she was reminded of her working class status – she was called the daughter of a grocer – at least three times in the film.

After she loses her first attempt at being voted into Parliament, and her future husband reminds her in the post-election gloom, that she lost because she is a grocer’s daughter, in their eyes, and a SINGLE grocer’s daughter at that. He suggests that she’d do better if she was the wife of a moderately successful businessman – in short, he proposes marriage to her.

After accepting the proposal she lays her cards out on the table for Denis. She’s says that she will never be one of those women – who stay silent and pretty on the arm of her husband. Or remote or alone in the kitchen doing the washing up.

She says, “No … one’s life must matter, Denis. Beyond the cooking and the cleaning and the children, one’s life must be more than that – I cannot die washing up a tea cup.”

This was 1950 – she has just lost the run for the Parliament seat from Dartford. But she showed us, and Denis, her steely resolve. This may have been 1950 but this was also a strong feminist statement by a future world leader. A leader who would say later in her life and political career, that she’d put the ‘Great’ back in Great Britain.

So eventually she won a seat in Parliament in 1959. When you think of Parliament you also think of it as the equivalent of the US Senate. But mostly you don’t think of as 1) the old boys  club, 2) the seat of the national government yet a place where heckling and cat-calling were not considered rude but welcomed and expected just as long as you referenced the other speaker as the Right and Honorable.

A member said to her and the gathered Members: ‘Methinks the Right Honourable Lady doth screech too much. If she wants us to take her seriously she must learn to calm down.’

Margaret’s reply, ” If the right honourable gentleman could perhaps attend more closely to WHAT I am saying, rather than HOW I am saying it, he may receive a valuable education in spite of himself.”

Yes, just another day at the Madhouse, as Parliament was called by those privy to be seated members.

It was a difficult place for any rookie Member of Parliament, but as a woman, she was tested even further than most. As Thatcher puts it later in the film, “I’ve been fighting a war every day of my life.”

From that beginning, Thatcher rose to become the leader of her country. Then, rightly or wrongly, she took on the English Labor and trade unions, then Argentina in the Falklands war. “The Falkland Islands belong to Britain and I want them back.”

Then the  Russians, and just about anyone that got in her way. She was tough as nails, unbending, and even had no hesitation in either berating or belittling her staff and other senior members of the English government. She took pride in the fact that she was a grocer’s daughter – but the average citizen resented how she strong-armed the labor unions; seemingly giving sway to the corporations.

So she was in some quarters loved, and in others reviled and hated. The film showed us archival newsreel footage of riots in the streets – with the uniformed police in conflict and struggling mightily to hold back the surging protesters of Thatcher’s policies. Seemingly,  the film makers don’t take a definitive stand on any subject, policy, or principle that Thatcher stood for.  We are left to our own devices and thought processes to determine what we thought of her.

Yet following every momentous speech, or every event that played out on the world’s stage, what followed would be the transference back to the present with Margaret’s deterioration evident to all, except to Margaret herself.

Streep gave us everything she had, and she was great at it, as Margaret Thatcher the Prime Minister. But the film spent more time in her later years – as an older woman, Margaret Thatcher, the citizen, whose grip on reality was lessening with each day. Here Streep showed us a woman who had little left except her memories and her pride. Eight years after Denis Thatcher had passed away, Margaret still had daily conversations with him in her mind. Her dementia was such that her family didn’t want her to go out of the house alone.

I can imagine how difficult it was for Streep to don the prosthetics and make up necessary to portray this older and proud woman, who refused to let go of Denis, so many years after his passing but didn’t believe she was in faltering health at all. Beyond that, I wonder how Streep dealt with the idea of her own future while gazing into a mirror and seeing Thatcher but also knowing that something similar could be what she might see of herself down the road.

There have been some commentaries that said it wasn’t necessary to show Margaret’s encroaching dementia, that this was an invasion of her privacy. I don’t quite agree with that. In fact, Streep herself was angered by those type of comments – and her reply was that it is life and it is the truth.

What is your take on that?

I believe that while the film spent more time on Margaret’s private life than public life, the treatment is sympathetic in the sense that we have no prohibitions about discussing heart disease in films, so why this furor?

I’m going to rate this one as a four point zero out of five. While the film makers show a certain reticence about taking a stand about Thatcher’s political stances, the film does engage the viewer. The film could have been made on a smaller scale, but it wasn’t. This appears to be a film made with a very ample budget. Kudos must also go to Jim Broadbent who portrayed the older Denis Thatcher, as well as to all the actors and actresses I didn’t know or recognize in the supporting roles.

Even though we are taken inside Thatcher’s post government life – and it is not all flowers and sunsets – the film is distinctly praise worthy. The extraordinary Streep once again shines, though I must says she has been given the best lines in the script. The film touches on the many high points and highlights of her career. But Margaret’s victories on the world and national stage are always off-set by her being dragged out of her memories and back to the present where things are going less well. The failure to slant the film either pro-Thatcher or anti-Thatcher vis-a-vis political leanings, is not that big a deal as you watch the story unfold. You may certainly considered this after, if you like. But in my view, that failing doesn’t detract enough for me to give the film a lower score.