Film Review – The Iron Lady
Margret Thatcher is a controversial figure even to her admirers. She is the woman who stood up to the unions and communism. To her detractors, she was a brutal woman who put down workers and helped the rich get richer. Just on the history alone, this is a prime subject for examination in a film. So it is sad that there is so little to be learned about her in The Iron Lady (2011).
Thatcher (Meryl Streep) is now an old woman and is suffering from dementia and getting confused about the past and the present. This serves as the narrative device to get us to see her past life, which includes her talking with her dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). We are given shots of her youth, seeing her father talk about self-reliance, and then her moving quickly to getting involved in politics at a young age and meeting Denis on one of her early campaigns to become a member of Parliament. However, nothing is really examined; from here we jump to her later getting elected and then jump ahead even further to her being a member of the Cabinet. It is jarring theatrically, for a start, but it is actually more disappointing than that; here are the times that we could be learning about her as a person, or at least defining her politics and her ambition. Both of these are the essential parts of what should make this woman fascinating.
Instead, much of the film is spent with her as an old woman. If screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd wanted to explore what it is like for someone who was once so strong to be brought down by time, that could have been interesting, but their Thatcher just spouts about the past and talks to her dead husband. The scenes with him are there to make her appear more human, since she appears to be a strong-willed, uncaring person in much of the material with her as Prime Minister. These sequences, while quite touching, seem out of sync with the rest of the film, with these two having almost no screen time together when Denis was alive. We have little to base the relationship on, beyond one scene where he seems exasperated with her ambition when she decides to run for Prime Minister.
Even when we get to her time as Prime Minister, we are not given a whole lot of information besides focusing on some of the major events. The Falkland Islands invasion gives us the most insight into her inner workings, in the way she handles different advice, and the strength of her resolve. But then we get quick moments on the bombing of the Conservative party conference and her being challenged for the leadership. Beyond those moments, there is little that is examined about her time in office beyond newspaper clips that talk first about the riot, then some of her policies, and then the economy recovering. The most we learn during the end of her time as Prime Minister is that she has gotten almost unbearable to work with, though this aspect of her is established early on. It is such a random showing of events that at the end, the woman still remains as much of a mystery as she was when the film started.
Trying to be unbiased with a bio film is important, but to the degrees taken here, the character ends up not having any established characteristics at all. Meryl Streep, as always, captures the accent perfectly, but as stated earlier, we spend most of the time with her now old and feeble. Streep is reduced to just bumbling along being confused much of the time. When she is Prime Minister, she gets a few scenes of acting firm with the men around, and we are able to see how well she dominated those people around her—but there is almost no sense of these men, so her ability to control them doesn’t create a sense of who she is to them and what they are for her. While watching this, the political biopic Nixon kept coming to mind; while Oliver Stone takes liberties with certain sequences, he makes certain that we have a sense of the inner workings of his character. We see Nixon’s ambitions, his abilities, his weaknesses and the wrongs he feels he has suffered, real and imaginary, and get a sense of who he is and what he is about by the way people act around him, especially his wife and his staffers. While, again, it may not be accurate, we have a view of what Stone saw Nixon as; here it is unclear what the filmmakers want us to know about Thatcher.
For a short history lesson of Thatcher’s greatest moments, this could be a quick introduction to the woman. However, as an attempt to get at what this woman was, the film is sorely lacking and frankly a waste of Streep’s talents. Politically, Thatcher would not be someone who would excite me, but, politics aside, someone who was such a huge figure in history deserves a better examination than this.
Final Grade: C