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Non-Review Review: The Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher is a complex character. She’s certainly a divisive political figure, but I think that her detractors and her supporters would both admit that the woman isn’t a two-dimensional pop psychology case. The biggest problem with The Iron Ladyis the way that it attempts to offer a simplistic analysis of Thatcher, presenting her as a failure of a wife and a mother who compensated by running her cabinet and her country like a stern matriarch. While Streep gives a solid performance, and director Phyllida Lloyd tries her best to make the movie visually engaging, it feels a bit cheap and shallow. It doesn’t help that the movie trots out the familiar Oscar-baiting bio-pic clichés as if it were assembling an IKEA cabinet. Whatever you may think of Thatcher, she deserved more nuance and complexity than The Iron Lady affords her.

The Broad(bent) strokes...

Part of me wonders if part of the law is the decision to reduce a woman’s entire life into a nice hour-and-forty-minutes movie. I think the stronger political and personal retrospectives have done well to tighten their focus, giving us a look at one particular event in the lead character’s life. Consider, for example, the way The Queen explored its subjects through the lens of Diana’s death, or the way that Frost/Nixon tried to capture something of the former President’s soul in one last title bout. Both are single events in lives that are filled with interesting anecdotes and events. Even those bio-pics that do dare to engulf an entire life on film usually give a bit more space, allowing the story to breath and unfold. Oliver Stone’s Nixon is a long, but rewarding, film. Steven Soderbergh had to split Che in two.

Perhaps The Iron Lady would have done better to explore Thatcher through the lens of a single event. It isn’t as if her tenure in 10 Downing Street was uneventful, nor her political career beforehand. There was her rise to power, the Falklands War, the miners, the bombing of the Grand, and even the palace coup against her. Instead, the film tries to cram everythinginto a little over one hundred minutes. It’s an impossible and thankless task, and it means that the characterisation and depth suffers as a result of the scope and breadth of the project.

Holding on to her seat...

As a result, we get Pop Psychology 101, with Margaret Thatcher in the hot seat. We get cheap jabs about the price of milk, but we also get a rather simplistic exploration of gender roles. It might as well be titled “Maggie the Mother.” Receiving a briefing on the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, she sits in her Queen Anne chair staring down the assembled military officers like a parent awaiting a school report from a naughty child. Giving the American Secretary of State a bit of a talking to, she asks, “Shall I play mother?” She scolds Geoffrey Howe on a typo of the word “committee” like a mother correcting homework, and then sends the cabinet out of the room without any supper. (Well, without discussing any cabinet business, because they’ve been misbehaving.)

In case we didn’t get the memo, the movie force-feeds us a simplistic contrast with Margaret Thatcher, the apparently failed mother. We’re told her son doesn’t want to be around her (she mocks herself for “making excuses”, when living half the world away seems a good excuse). Her daughter freaks out when Thatcher hijacks a successful driving lesson to announce she’s running for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Even the ever-loyal Dennis is portrayed as a neglected husband. “How long did it take you to realise I was gone?” he asks after he retreats to South Africa. Towards the end, “M.T.” begs him not leave, claiming she can’t do it without him. He replies, “You already did.”

A driven woman...

Hell, the most blatantly manipulative imagery of the film sees Thatcher driving to the House of Commons after being elected. Her children beg her to stay, and chase after the car, crying. When was the last time you saw that happen for a male character going to work? As she arrives in the bristling metropolis of London, she tidies away the toys from the car, locking them up in the glove compartment. She never seems to go back for them.

All of which seems stunningly simplistic and almost insulting. Why does she need to “mother” the country as a way of compensating for not being a house wife anymore than Tony Blair (for example) needs to “father” the country as a way of compensating for not being a house husband? The film repeatedly portrays Margaret as surrounded by “weak men”, including a predatory Michael Heseltine (played by a predatory Richard E. Grant), who literally circles her like a lion at one point. It seems hypocritical for the movie to portray Thatcher as the victim of implicit sexism while accusing her of failing in her duties as a wife and mother.

House keeping...

More than that, though, the film opts for the familiar trappings of Oscar-bait movies, using them as lazy cinematic shortcuts. For example, we’re treated to a vocal training session that seems more than a little bit like The King’s Speech. There’s also a framing story about an increasingly frail Thatcher succumbing to mental illness and disorientation. It seems like a cynical excuse to portray Thatcher as “weak” in a ploy to gain sympathy from the audience, even giving her an imaginary Dennis to serve as a sort of a sounding board for the trip down memory lane.

In fairness, though, there are nice touches. While Phyllida Lloyd keeps the movie as shallow as possible, she also gives it a somewhat light touch, making sure that the runtime flies by. The editing is snazzy, and the movie avoids a lot of the confusion that many of these career retrospectives can produce. Given the tendency to feature large casts over an extended period, it’s often easy to lose track of who certain people are in the grand scheme of things, and what their relationship to the protagonist might be. Even Stone’s superb Nixon occasionally fell into that trap.

A class(room) act?

Here, the audience is never really confused, because Lloyd keeps the film tight – there’s never a sense that any of the characters outside Margaret and Dennis are important, and they are cast as cyphers rather than characters. Anthony Head is the quiet and timid “number two man” while Richard E. Grant is the “cynical political contender.” The only confusion I ever faced was when I mistook Head’s character for John Major, and that was cleared up the first time he was mentioned by name. It’s interesting that Major is a complete non-entity here, which is probably worth a cheap joke or two.

Streep is solid as Thatcher. I won’t say that she’s brilliant, because she isn’t – there’s nothing here that tops her recent powerhouse performance in Doubt. She’s very good, and easily the best thing about the movie – and the closest thing to a reason to see the film. She gives Thatcher a wonderful sort of strength, and you never really feel like you’re watching Streep doing an impersonation. She doesn’t have the best material to work with, but she does a nice job. Jim Broadbent continues to play the role of the “befuddled older man”almost perfectly, and he adds an element of pathos to a rather one-dimensional Dennis.

Rue Britannia...

The Iron Lady has a lot going for it, but it never seems to rise to meet its ambitions. At its best, it offers a rather basic understanding of why Thatcher thought some of the things she did, but reduces the woman to the type of sound bytes that might be associated with one of her successors. “In my day, people wanted to do something,” she suggests at one point. “Today it seems like people just want to be someone.” Like much of the rest of the film, it’s too basic and simplistic for its own good.

There’s a wonderful film to be made about Thatcher. But this is not it, I’m afraid.

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4 Responses

  1. This was just a mess of a movie, and I bet it will cost Meryl the Oscar. I thought it was condescending to women, especially conservative women. Why does her strength and her resolve have to make her the dreaded B-word??

    • Not even that, why does she have to sacrifice family for power because she’s a woman? No Kennedy biopic will ever portray him choosing between his kids and the Presidency. Somehow because she’s a woman, the alternative is automatically family. All of this is surreal because Margaret and Dennis Thatcher had a surprisingly stable and loving marriage by all accounts. (Unlike, for example, the gossip you hear about other “power couples.”)

  2. I have had no interest in this film. I feel there are too many biopics at the moment to be honest

    • I don’t even think it’s too many bio-pics, I think it’s the model of them. J. Edgar and The Iron Lady are preoccupied with taking a conservative icon and casting them as sympathetic to a liberal audience – it just seems so cynical and underhanded. It’s the ultimate backhanded compliment: the only way to make Maggi sympathetic is to paint her as a failed mother with a mental illness; J. Edgar is completely irredeemable unless he’s in the closet. I find that approach far too calculated and cynical. Either (a.) have the courage to condemn your subjects for their political beliefs, or (b.) dare to examine and explore those beliefs without constructing such a manipulative safety net.

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