'80s punk rock, Academy Award Nominee, Academy Award Winner, Academy Awards, biopic, British Prime Minister, cinema, conservatives, Denis Thatcher, Film, growing old, historical drama, love story, Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep, Movies, Phyllida Lloyd, politicians, Ronald Reagan, the Falklands War, The Iron Lady
History, we’re told, is written by the winners. This is, I assume, because the losers are currently pushing up daisies and otherwise occupied. Nonetheless, there really are two sides to every story and it would often surprise us to see how poorly those two halves fit together. We may think we know the myriad reasons or provocations behind any number of historical incidents but, in reality, most of us just weren’t there (if you were there, anywhere, for anything, then this certainly doesn’t pertain to you: just keep on as you were before). We can guess, we can speculate, we can play arm-chair quarterback and backseat driver until the cows come home but, at the end of the day, it changes nothing: most of us just weren’t there, no matter what it is we’re talking about.
There have been few public figures (and almost all of them politicians, let’s be frank) that have been as divisive a presence as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On the one hand, Thatcher was England’s first female Prime Minister, no small feat in the notorious boys’ club that is British politics. She was, by all accounts, passionate about her causes and politics, something that isn’t always evident in other politicians. She also helped to usher in an age of prosperity for England in the ’80s, although there were certainly costs. On the flip side, there was a very good reason why punk rock in the UK flourished under Thatcher’s reign, the very same reason for the boom in U.S. hardcore during the Reagan years. Both were considered paragons of their respective conservative parties, diligently pursued military actions as the ends to the means and managed to raise an army of vocal antagonists, individuals willing to riot, protest and do whatever was necessary to halt what they felt was the rapid slide into fascism.
As a film, The Iron Lady attempts to present both disparate halves of the coin that was Margaret Thatcher yet uses a technique that seems to unduly weight the outcome in her favor. Structurally, the film begins with Thatcher as an old, doddering retiree, going to the local convenience store to purchase some milk, just like any old pensioner. She returns to her modest flat where she engages in spirited conversation with her husband, a sweet activity made suddenly sad by the realization that he’s not actually there: he’s been dead for some time and Maggie is now completely alone, left with only the memories of her past and her husband’s “ghost” for company.
Throughout the film, the action moves between two parallel timelines: Thatcher in the present, trying to finally dispose of her dead husband’s long stored possessions, and Thatcher, in the past, on her road to Prime Minister. The effect is interesting, more so when one realizes how much the “present” material dilutes our perception of Thatcher in the “past.” Any time the audience seems to be at risk of developing more negative attitudes towards Thatcher, the film cuts back to the present and drops us back into her very sad current struggles. The effect is akin to trying to discipline a puppy days after the incident: you may have been mad at the time, but the puppy doesn’t remember what happened now and you probably won’t, either, have it wiggles its ears at you. In other words, its pretty impossible to hold young/middle-aged Thatcher’s politics/actions against her when we’re presented with the sad, lonely figure that she’s become.
In many ways, then, The Iron Lady functions more as a love story than a biopic. We follow Thatcher’s courtship of and eventual marriage to Denis Thatcher (played ably by Harry Lloyd in the past and quite wonderfully by Jim Broadbent in the present), a relationship that weaves in and around Margaret’s political career. Since the film tends to spend so much time in the present, with a distinct focus on the bittersweet idea of Margaret finally learning to let go of her dead husband, it can often seem as if the story of her rise to power is of secondary importance.
This is not to say that the filmmakers whitewash the issue in any obvious way. There is still plenty of discussion regarding Thatcher’s labor-busting policies, tendency to squeeze the middle class into extinction and disastrous war in the Falklands. We see plenty of protesters mobbing her vehicles and hear plenty of venomous slurs tossed her way. The overall impact, however, tends to be diluted when we immediately cut back to old, doddering Margaret looking sad as she contemplates her husband’s old clothes. A purely chronological story, one that began with a young Margaret and moved forward to her old age would have been an entirely different story, methinks, or at least one that provoked a bit more confrontation.
As it is, The Iron Lady really stands for one main reason: as yet another showcase of Meryl Streep’s nearly unnatural abilities as a performer and mimic. Her portrayal of Thatcher is so spot-on, so uncanny and intuitive, that it really puts to rest any question as to the true intent of the film: this is, first and foremost, an acting showcase for Streep. As always, she’s impeccable, bringing her usual array of tics, mannerisms and piercing glares into play in a way that never, for a moment, had me doubting that I was actually watching Thatcher. Streep is exceptional in a film that seems very content to plow a middle-ground without much over-due antagonism.
The biggest problem, as mentioned earlier, is that The Iron Lady is really two films jammed together: a historical biopic and a sad relationship film. Separately, either story would have had some genuine pathos and emotional resonance. Mashed together, however, both storylines seem to get shafted, with neither one allowed to be fully developed.
At the end of the day, perhaps The Iron Lady is supposed to transcend the notion of personal history and politics, pointing out the uncomfortable fact that, at the end, we’re all going to dodder around and miss our loved ones, regardless of the impact we’ve made on the world at large. It’s no doubt true but there’s still a part of me that wishes that this talented cast and crew would have dug a little deeper, done a little more than cast a gauzy, sentimental gaze over a very powerful public figure.
Ah, well…I guess you had to be there, after all.