'Iron Lady' Goes Soft
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"People don't think anymore," an aggrieved Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) complains to her physician about two-thirds of the way through "The Iron Lady." "They want to be governed by people who care more about feelings than about thoughts or ideas." I do not know if the inclusion of this bit of musing, which the audience is clearly meant to get right behind and cheer on, was intended as some kind of perverse in-joke on the part of screenwriter Abi Morgan and/or director Phyllida Lloyd. But whatever their intention, they certainly do have their nerve.
Because "The Iron Lady," a portrait of the first female prime minister of Great Britain in her Sadly Dementia-Tinged Dotage, her Resilient Days of Early Struggle, and, in its most triumphalist key, her Controversial and Steely Tenure as the Woman Who Politically and Economically Reshaped the United Kingdom, is almost altogether bald in its desire that the viewer not think about Margaret Thatcher, or her ideas, or her actions, and pretty relentless in its efforts to squelch thought while promoting pity, empathy and a little dread.
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That the movie succeeds at all in doing the latter is almost entirely attributable to the acting work of Streep, who is remarkably precise, respectful and frequently quite witty in her portrayal of two of the three above-cited incarnations of Thatcher (the young and oddly hot Margaret is played by plucky Alexandra Roach), and of Jim Broadbent, playing a more hamishe version of Thatcher's husband, Denis, than many who recall Denis' disposition in public life might find probable. Of course, the Denis Thatcher of this film often exists solely in the imagination of Margaret, whose contemporary mental condition, as per the movie -- the present-day segments of which take place during the 2008 Mumbai terrorist bombings -- is deteriorating rapidly. As Margaret sees news reports on the television about the attacks, her mind goes back, not just to the assassination attempt against her in 1984 (also a bombing, in this case, of the Grand Hotel in Brighton), but, of course, to her entire career, from humble beginnings as a grocer's daughter to early political ambitions met with snobbery and sexism to conflicted family life and on. These memories are interspersed with dreary scenes of her life now. Soon daughter Carol (Olivia Colman, looking like she's dropping by on her way to a Mike Leigh film) turns up and is immediately alarmed by her mom's condition. But while Thatcher's mind is going, her defenses, and the indomitability that earned her the nickname that gives the film its title, are still very much in place.
The point being that even an iron lady is, like all the rest of us, only human after all. This message is not being entirely well-received by certain righties, who would like to see Thatcher marry Ronald Reagan in Conservative Oz, or by many lefties, who have a stately figure of Thatcher cracking a whip at some Dickensian waifs on their carousel of history's greatest monsters. Those whose knowledge of recent British political history is mostly informed by new wave music of the '80s (The English Beat's "Stand Down Margaret," Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding," and Elvis Costello's "Tramp the Dirt Down," in which the singer imagines himself tending Thatcher's grave, are among the standout protest songs in what is practically a subgenre) are not going to be necessarily persuaded by the largely favorable light the film casts on Thatcher's rule.
Morgan and Lloyd contrive their view of events so as not to tip an ideological hand, which naturally winds up landing the whole thing smack dab in the middle of dominant ideology. Thatcher's rise is depicted to demonstrate that strength of character and savvy application of learning always overcome odds; her standing up to trade unions is pitched as an object lesson in doing the right thing even when it's not the popular thing; her decision to wage war in the Falklands when she's told that the country can't afford a war shows us ... well, come to think of it, I'm not sure what I was supposed to get out of that bit, except maybe that a woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do, or that Thatcher's special glory was in being given the power to send men to their deaths, and who then exercised that power, or ... I dunno. And her political fall, precipitated by a mistake of personal (what else?) hubris, and carried out by her former compatriots, is ostensibly a bit of ain't-it-ever-thus "Et tu, Brute?" universalist wisdom.
Whew. And much of this material is handled by Lloyd, who also directed Streep in, yes, the ABBA-song musical "Mamma Mia!," with notable maladroitness. A handful of scenes here provide textbook examples of where-not-to-put-the-camera shots, and her use of ostensibly emotion-boosting effects such as slow motion is so arbitrary in most instances that it might as well have been decided by a coin toss. For as much of a mess as this movie is, there are moments in which Streep and Broadbent draw it into a sharp humanist focus. But they don't occur often enough.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.