Let’s just grant that I’m not the kind of person that would be nostalgic for Margaret Thatcher. Therefore, I will try to limit my remarks to this film, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, to its cinematic value only. My first response is: why?
The script is written in a familiar biographic form–the remembrances of an old person. Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, is first seen as if she were some typical woman buying milk at the corner store. Then she is seen having breakfast with her husband, Jim Broadbent. But everything is not as it seems, as indicated by the brief glimpse of a guard with a machine gun in the hallway. Thatcher is indeed a baroness, who slipped out to buy milk against the wishes of her staff, and her husband is dead. In her encroaching dementia, though, he stays with her.
Throughout the two or so days we spend with the elder Thatcher, her life flashes before her. Daughter of a grocer, who was also a mayor, she goes to Oxford, enters the man’s world of politics, and after losing at least one election, gets elected to Parliament in 1959. She marries Dennis Thatcher, and decides to run for party leader. She becomes Prime Minister, and with her conservative, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy, slashes the budget, wages war on Argentina, enrages unions, and finally gets so bossy that she’s pushed out.
As I walked out of the theater, I wondered, what was the point of this film? It seems to have no particular point of view. It does seem to try to bend over backwards to show us she was a loving wife and mother, but even Hitler had a girlfriend–that she seemed to have a normal home life doesn’t excuse anything. Later Lloyd, along with screenwriter Abi Morgan, show us how she was not beloved by all of her people, but aside from her belief that people with problems should fix it themselves, and not look to the government, there’s little of her political philosophy on hand. There’s a bit of her struggle as a woman in man’s world, by showing her in a sea of men in suits, the “lady member’s room” in the House of Commons basically a closet with an ironing board, but Thatcher wasn’t exactly Germaine Greer. I remember people, perhaps her critics, saying she was successful as a woman in politics because she thought just like a man.
So the film shows us Thatcher in her dotage, hallucinating her dead husband, who was a bit of a wag (at one point, he spoils the mystery she’s reading) and shows us the highlights of her life. One critic, I’m sorry that I can’t remember who, compared the film to Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”–“war in the Falklands!” There’s the obligatory scene showing her hotel room being bombed by the IRA, but there’s nothing in the script that tells us how she felt about that or what she thought of the Irish situation. It’s just a slide show.
As for Meryl Streep, she’s uncanny in how she can inhabit a character. She’s got the plummy British nuance of her voice down. The makeup focuses on her teeth, which is a bit distracting, but I think that’s because we know what Streep looks like, and therefore know exactly what is real and what is not. If an unknown actress had played the part the makeup wouldn’t have been an issue. I think I detected some leftover voice mannerisms from Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child, though.
The Iron Lady is competently made and acted, but I’m at a loss as to what it was supposed to make me think and feel. Sympathy? Admiration? Don’t judge too hastily? I don’t know. It certainly didn’t change my mind about Thatcher–I doubt it will for anyone, supporter and critic alike.
My grade for The Iron Lady: C-.