In the first scene of The Iron Lady, which reteams director Phyllida Lloyd with her Mamma Mia! star Meryl Streep, eightysomething Margaret Thatcher is presented as a little old lady unfit for the fast-moving world outside her hermetic London townhouse. The bulk of the movie takes place in an even smaller, more airless space: the dementia-stricken former British prime minister’s head.
Three makes a trend: The Iron Lady joins Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (which is framed by the FBI director’s questionably reliable recollections) and W.E. (in which writer/director Madonna tries to rehabilitate the Duchess of Windsor through the daydreams of a modern-day admirer) as 2011 attempts to humanize controversial historical figures via delusion. Lloyd’s film alternates between Thatcher’s rich memories of her past struggles and glories, and her present-day efforts to remember the more quotidian stuff—like how to turn on the TV or that her beloved husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), whom she sees across the breakfast table and speaks aloud to all day long, is actually dead.
Breezing through 60-something years (Thatcher is played by Alexandra Roach as the teenage daughter of a small-town grocer through her first election to public office), Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan elide grand swaths of Thatcher’s life, from her pre-politics career in chemistry to her friendship with and political support of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The fact that they fudge on both the damning and the incidental is relevant. The filmmakers aren’t merely whitewashing to erase the bad stuff—they’ve cut out anything that might complicate the film’s notion of Thatcher as a working-class girl turned plucky housewife turned feminist icon turned tragically doddering granny. At (presumably) the end of her life, Thatcher’s struggle is not how to reconcile all she wrought on the world-historical stage, but to come to terms with how to get through the day without Denis by her side.
Throughout, women’s drama is put above political drama. Thatcher’s transformation into a viable candidate for prime minister is presented as a literal makeover: The country girl has to learn how to talk differently and do her hair real fancy-like in order to make it in the big city. Her big city is, at first, the British Parliament, then the world stage. When Thatcher’s military credentials are challenged on the eve of the Falklands War, she haughtily declares, “I’ve been doing battle every day of my life”—as if the tools she has accumulated to deal with workplace discrimination have anything to do with battlefield strategy. (This kind of go-girl simplification of gender dynamics in politics was much more convincing as the fuel lighting François Ozon’s 2010 fizzy women’s-lib comedy, Potiche.)
Arguments against Thatcher, according to The Iron Lady, were always irrational and usually knee-jerk misogynistic. The film’s take on her reign as prime minister is epitomized in one particular montage in which footage of labor protests, terror incidents, and the breakdown of basic infrastructure (i.e., the streets of London filling with garbage during the sanitation strike) is spliced against Streep delivering Thatcher’s forceful speeches. Her point of view is well represented; the counterargument is merely violence and chaos. In this version, Thatcher “fell” because a lone civilized woman could not possibly survive the onslaught of the barbaric mob. In this version, Thatcher is the victim.
That the film presents the historical record through aged Thatcher’s stream of consciousness—an obviously biased and unreliable narrator—gives Lloyd formal justification for turning Thatcher’s life into a highlight reel, in which the PM is put upon by sexist, classist, and/or faceless brutes. As for moral justification, you’re on your own.
Despite the story’s conceit of placing the viewer inside Thatcher’s head, she never feels like a real person—but this is more the fault of Morgan’s script than Streep’s typically studied performance, much of it buried under prosthetics. In her glory years, even behind closed doors, Thatcher is all campaign-speak bombast; later, she’s a cartoon of old age, with the camera angled to emphasize her skewed point of view. The supposedly world-beating intimacy between Margaret and Denis is fatally hampered by the preachy script, typified in Thatcher’s response to Denis’s marriage proposal: “I cannot die washing up a teacup!”
Ruthlessly exploiting recent history to lend weight to a standard-issue mom-rom-com question, The Iron Lady asks: Is it possible to be a ball-busting, barrier- (and barrister-) breaking lady politician and still maintain some semblance of a family life without literally losing one’s mind? The answer the film offers is a resounding “no”—and then it asks you to believe that this is the true tragedy of Thatcher’s life.
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