The Iron Lady

The Iron Lady (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach) had always been interested in public service. Despite her accomplishments in the University of Oxford and keen interest in politics, she was never meant to be taken seriously. How could she when women were perceived to have no place in governing a country? And with a humble background while growing up, she would always be seen as a mere grocer’s daughter. Instead of wilting under the shadow of society’s expectations, the put-downs she brooked made her hungrier. After marrying Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd, later played by Jim Broadbent), she ran in the election and was given the title of Great Britain’s Prime Minister. Margaret Tatcher (Meryl Streep) was more than willing to prove that she earned the people’s trust in her ability to govern. Based on the screenplay by Abi Morgan, as “The Iron Lady” unfolded, I began to feel like it was experiencing an identity crisis. I was very entertained and magnetized by Streep’s dual performance: As a frail aging woman on the verge of dementia and as a no-nonsense leader who was able to make the tough decisions for what she believed was right. However, as someone who didn’t know much about Thatcher, I felt like the picture was not only a very brief synopsis, but not a very good one because there were too many gaps left unmentioned and unexplored. One example involved Tatcher’s delusions that her husband was still alive. It was never mentioned how he died and, more importantly, the picture never showed, in a meaningful way, why Denis was such an important presence in his wife’s life independent of being a husband who insisted that she got some sleep instead of working until three o’clock in the morning. In relation to Thatcher being in power, after the war between the United Kingdom and Argentina had ended, I got the impression that the economic turmoil that plagued Great Britain prior to the Falklands War magically disappeared. How did winning the war help to solve the country’s economic troubles? While it was wonderful to watch Streep’s versatility in playing an old lady who snuck out of her home to buy butter, I wish we had more scenes of her in office. When the flashback scenes were front and center, I slowly began to feel the pressure that Tatcher was under. As everyone looked to her for answers, I felt uncomfortable for her. The trips to the past were the film’s highest points because they showed why she was a great and flawed leader. Her seemingly impenetrable armor did not come without a cost. One of the most memorable sequences was Thatcher’s breakdown during a meeting. Awkward cuts ran abound, the camera jumped from one area of the room to another, both of which reflected an ineluctable lack of inner focus in Thatcher’s mind. Because she was so frustrated that the change she expected to come out of her leadership didn’t come swiftly enough, she turned to her Cabinet minister, Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), and pointed out his mistakes and how unprepared he was during that meeting. We all knew that deep down, Howe’s shortcomings reflected her own. She was just too proud to admit it. The scene was shot with such a vibrant energy and not without a sense of humor, a reminder of how powerful “The Irony Lady,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd, could have been if it had spent more time exploring the Prime Minister’s accomplishments and failures as a leader, a mother, and an individual who just wanted to make a difference.

3 replies »

  1. think you’re final observation is the key one: “The Iron Lady” is a deeply flawed film because it got its focus wrong. I’ll try to thread carefully here, and separate my politics (I’m a Nordic social democrat – which, by American standards makes an off-the-charts socialist, and thus on the exact opposite side of the spectrum from Thatcher politically), my academic interest (I’m writing a Master’s Thesis on the UK Labour Party) and its cinematic failures. But my main criticism, and the reason why I consider The Iron Lady the worst new film I’ve seen this year, sort of straddles all three. To me it fails both as an intimate domestic drama, a political drama, and as a movie with any pretension of giving a nuanced portrait of Britain with Thatcher at the helm.

    First, I think the focus on Thatcher as an old woman suffering from dementia was an odd and flawed choice from the get-go, for framing a movie about arguably the most powerful female politician of all time. I cannot help but think that a similar movie about a male politician never would have focused this heavily on his life after leaving office, and as a person loosing grip on reality. It’s not that I don’t think people suffering from dementia deserve to be represented in movies, my point is that this should be the focal point of this particular movie. It’s one thing that we never really get the sense why Dennis was so important to her; another is that it takes away from her historical importance by both trivializing and confusing her political aspects. As someone with fairly deep knowledge of recent British political history (I don’t mean to sound arrogant) through my academic research, I was able to understand and discern the events and controversies that were merely alluded to in the film (like the career-defining miner’s strike of 1984-85, in the movie represented by some scattered screaming protests, and the Falklands War.

    As for your question about what it was about the war effort that kickstarted the British economy, I’d say there was no real kick-start, at least not from the war. Thatcher presided over the transition of Britain from an industrial to a more service-oriented economy, but in the process I’d say she neglected both the towering unemloyment and the crisis in British education (this may sound normative, but it is not a particularly controversial summary of Thatcher’s reign, see for instance Robert Taylor’s “The Trade Union Question in British Politics, 1993). However, the war did help with Thatcher’s sagging poll numbers, but the get the full picture, which the movie is very far from delivering, one also has to take into account a deeply divided oppostion, with an internal battle for power in the Labour Party, and a splintering of the progressive vote in the 1983 general election between Labour and the Liberal Alliance.

    In these and other ways, I think the movie fails to place Thatcher as a transformative figure in British history, and thus it diminishes her achievements (many of which I disagree with, strongly). The internal oppostion to her in the party, which as you quite rightly point out was partially class-based, was hinted at but never followed through on, and her departure from office was also handled in a strangely off-handed way. The result is a complete mess, that confuses more than it enlightens, regardless of Streep’s impressive performance.

    Personally, I would have liked to see what somebody like Stephen Frears, and his script-writer Peter Morgan (“The Deal”, “The Queen”, “The Special Relationship”) could have done with this material. They have previously shown their ability to humanize seemingly robotic and cynical political figures (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alistair Campbell), without losing sight of what was inherently political about their actions and motivations. In The Iron Lady that’s nowhere to be seen. There’s almost no politics there, and what there is is simplistic and poorly told.

    I could go on, but the short version is that I think the movie got it wrong from the start by focusing so much on the later Thatcher, and by so spectacularly either botching or simply ignoring what made her worthy of a biopic in the first place, apart from the chance to watch Streep make yet another bravura performance.

    • Wow! Thank you for enlightening me. Like I said on my review, I didn’t know anything about Thatcher coming into the movie so I appreciate it. Reading your comment definitely connected some strands that didn’t quite make sense. I think that if I had been more knowledgeable about her leadership and the events that occurred during her term, I would have been more critical. Also, I think you brought up a great point about the filmmakers focusing so much on the little old lady who’s losing her memory and grip on reality so that the audience would feel sort of sorry for her. Now I’m starting to think that the movie could’ve been great if the writing had focused only on her rise to and fall from power. But then that’s an entirely different movie. Who knows? Maybe it’ll get made some day.

      Still, I’m glad that I saw the movie even though it was a mixed bag because in the end, I learned some things that I didn’t know about Thatcher (which I guess can be acquired by picking up a biographical work about her), and Streep’s performance was joyous to watch. There were times when I thought, “Is that really her behind all that make-up?”

      • Franz,

        thanks for your appreciating my input. I, too, think that the movie should have focused more squarely on her political career; there’s more than enough there to warrant a biopic. I was happy to see Meryl win the Oscar again, but as with Denzel Washington (for Training Day), for instance, I was annoyed that she got honored for her work on such an awful film. She outshone the material at every turn, which made me sort of embarassed on behalf of the writer and director.

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