The Iron Lady

Political biopics can be tricky propositions, especially if they about a recent figure.  Anybody who’s worth making a movie about is bound to be controversial.  Do you play up the controversy, making a political film that will alienate a good percentage of your potential audience?  Or do you ignore the issues and concentrate on the personality of your subject, assuming it’s possible to separate them?  

In the case of Margaret Thatcher, I’m not sure that the latter is an option, so many of the problems that people had with her stemmed from her unyielding nature and unwillingness to compromise. And yet that is the approach that Phyllida Lloyd and Abi Morgan, the director and screenwriter respectively, of The Iron Lady have taken.  They have set aside Thatcher’s divisive legacy and tried to present her as a feminist icon, which she is in a way although most feminists would reject her conservative policies.  What they leave us with is a frustrating film at best and a maddening one at worst.  This is because it is impossible to separate Margaret Thatcher from politics.

First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way.  Meryl Streep is fabulous.  She plays both the driven almost ruthless politician that changes history, and the flawed neglectful mother and wife who needs her family but can’t spend much time cultivating those relationships.  She looks almost exactly like Thatcher at several stages in her life and captures her voice and mannerisms perfectly.

Jim Broadbent is also excellent as Denis Thatcher, her devoted husband and great love of her life.  He plays Denis as a seemingly befuddled middle class Englishman.  But he is smarter than he lets on, and he knows how and when to get his wife to laugh, and to calm her down with a “steady on, old girl.”  Jim Broadbent is always fun to watch.

Most biopics that try to cover a lot of years tend to gloss over things.  This is a sound decision in most cases because not every moment in a public figure’s life is important.  But The Iron Lady is all gloss.  It’s like a greatest hits medley, only giving you unsatisfying snatches of the songs.  Consequently there is no build up and really no drama.  Thatcher’s personal and political lives flow past at a blur that never slows down.  I’ve seen documentaries with more emotional depth.

And then there’s the political aspect.  Margaret Thatcher changed politics in Britain, bringing Reagan’s supply side paradigm to England.  That’s her story and her struggle.  So we see snippets of speeches where she rails against unions.  She cuts popular social programs and watches the resulting riots from her limousine, unmoved.  If you’re a conservative, you’re frustrated because these ideas are not fully developed; if you’re a liberal, you are enraged because there’s no rebuttal.  This is not a “political” film, after all.

I won’t hide the fact that I’m in the latter group.  In the end, despite Meryl Streep’s performance, I had no sympathy for the woman.

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