They say people would pay to watch Meryl Streep read the phonebook and I know that’s true. There are stretches when the script for The Iron Lady isn’t much better than the phonebook and yet it’s never boring. Streep is uncanny as Margaret Thatcher and the movie does many things well, but then it abandons that. We start with present day Maggie, long since retired and slowly losing it. She’s trapped in her own house by the protection command, she can’t even go to the grocery for milk, though when she’s able to sneak out, she isn’t recognized. Important people come over and pay tribute but don’t listen and even when she’s asked a question, it takes her a moment to process it and then she falls back on the politician-speak she can’t unlearn. Most troubling, she’s seeing her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent) who’s been dead for some time.
There’s a magnificent picture right there and director Phyllida Lloyd let’s us stay here for a while, watching this most powerful of people lose command of her audience and her faculties. She’s aware of it, she has traded sexism for ageism, she hears whispers of her condition from across the hall, she sees people treat her with kid gloves. Unfortunately, this lasts only for about 45 minutes and then the movie gives way to the same old scenes from a million biopics. He have a scene of young Margaret learning her sense of determination from her father, we have a few scenes of her courtship with Denis, a scene of political disappointment, a scene of political triumph, two or three sexism scenes, one scene, just one of her family resenting her ambition, and then a scene or two of every crises of her tenure as Prime Minister.
These moments don’t ring true because they only have enough time for a few minutes of screen time, mainly enough for Streep to sternly decree “It’s the right thing to do” or “We must cut spending” or “Sink it!” We are shown these moments and then are confused when we see riots in the streets. Hadn’t these people seen the previous scene? It was the right thing to do! To believe the movie, Thatcher wasn’t voted out because she was unpopular but because she was mean one time in a staff meeting. The historical moments want it both ways, here was a person who overcame opposition from all angles, was incredibly controversial yet she also never made a misstep in 11 years. I usually don’t get overly concerned with the politics of movies or even with the facts of historical dramas, which should always be taken with a grain of salt, but The Iron Lady is unabashed in its conservative views and draws some parallels between 1980s England and 2012 America that are dangerously perpendicular. Thatcher is often heard saying she must stop socialism, that she must cut spending even in one of the worst recessions in Britian’s history, that she must restore the “great” in Great Britain. I was waiting for a scene with Streep and a guy who looks like Ronald Reagan together (I wasn’t disappointed). Whoever wins the Republican nomination for President should push for the rerelease of The Iron Lady around mid-October.
Obviously, Margaret Thatcher was the leader of the conservative party and it would be disingenuous to water down her politics but the movie doesn’t even play lip service to some of her failures. For example, her defense of the Falklands is compared to Pearl Harbor and is made to be the crown jewel of her reign when, in fact, even the most ardent Thatcher backer would have to admit that the whole affair was little more than an display of hubris in which good people were killed. In fact, while she watches a news report about herself the newscaster calls Thatcher controversial and makes a list of her accomplishments and the set is turned off right after the newscaster says “Her detractors say…”
Despite the amount of words I’ve given to it, this is a minor point, the movie has the right to express whatever ideology it wants and it’s hardly the first biopic to see its subject through a rose-colored lens and with Thatcher the filmmakers have much to puff their chests about, but that it’s like other biopics is where we have the bigger a problem. This movie was on it’s way to being something unexpected and interesting, like Secret Honor, an insular biography, but then it played it safe and compromised, and if learned nothing else, that’s something Margaret Thatcher would never do.