The Iron Lady

As a long-time feminist, I’m supposed to really applaud this movie because it’s about a woman who had to conquer class prejudice and sexism to become the most powerful woman in Great Britain. But the theme of the movie–almost the apology of it–is its main question–what personal price did Mrs. Thatcher the woman pay for her great accomplishments?

Gee whiz, what personal cost did Tony Blair pay when he was Great Britain’s Primer Minister? Or how did George W. Bush fare in the family ratings during his eight years as President of the U.S. while he was waging war with Iraq and protesting Democrats? Were their spouses pouty? Were their kids neglected? Why are we concerned about the “personal cost” of great ambition when we’re telling the story of a powerful woman, but don’t ask the same questions of powerful men?

I enjoyed The Iron Lady, not just because it sent a message–if a lass is clever enough, even if she’s only the daughter of a small-town grocer, give her a degree from Oxford, shapely legs, good hair and a backbone of steel, she can rule the Empire–but also because it is a biopic of a woman I know very little about. It’s not a great movie, but an interesting one.

Unlike last year’s brilliant film, The King’s Speech, which clearly portrayed the social and historical context of the World War II era story, when The Iron Lady was over, l had to go to the internet to look up Margaret Thatcher to find out enough about her and her times to feel I’d seen her story. In the famous words of Sarah Palin, that was kind of “back asswards.” I suggest you research Margaret Thatcher before you see the movie and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

Late last year (2011, see review), J.Edgar, (a brilliant and underappreciated movie) told the story of J. Edgar Hoover, not so much through his blatant wrongdoing, but via his life-long friendship with his assistant, Clyde Tolson. It was a risky but memorable way to tell the story of a powerful man.

A similar choice was made in The Iron Lady–in this case — to tell Mrs. Thatcher’s story through her relationship with her husband. We first meet Margaret Thatcher as an old woman, long out of power, who like many widows, still carries on lively conversations with her dead spouse. Her beloved Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent) is a fiercely loyal, if somewhat dotty fellow who plays word games with her, takes her side in her resistance to overprotective caretakers, and reminisces in glorious detail with her about their good old days when she was “The Boss.” Through her conversations with Denis, her story is revealed in flashbacks.

Thatcher, born Margaret Roberts in 1925, was the apple of her father’s eye and he convinced her that a life of service to the nation should be her calling. What was good for small business was good for England, he drummed into her, and she never forgot that message. Her mother, according to the film, was an inconsequential housewife, perhaps, as the movie implies, explaining why Margaret always preferred the company of men. She certainly didn’t have any close female friends (did she ever go visit the Queen?), or fight for women’s causes, or do anything notable for other women. And that was fine with her. What Mrs. Thatcher did was try to set England back on the path to financial greatness, no matter how many nameless folks got eaten up in the process. She was very much against Great Britain joining in the great Euro experiment and many people today, in light of Europe’s growing financial crisis, consider her opposition to be prescient.

We see Margaret’s rise through the political ranks while she tries to take care of her twins and cook breakfast for her businessman husband (Harry Lloyd). As a young woman, Margaret is played by a remarkable English actress, Alexandra Rope, who is a terrific performer, standing proud in her own light and not as a shadow to Ms. Streep.

Soon Meryl Streep arrives to take over Mrs. Thatcher’s character. She does an incredible job. Every flick of the eye, every subtle lift of the bosom, every well-wrought phrase — “Let us put the “Great” back into Great Britain!”–is mesmerizing. Confounding her critics, but proving the faith of the coterie of men who groomed her for power, Mrs. Thatcher re-creates herself — and becomes Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979. She serves for a little over 10 years before, as the film points out, in November, 1990, she was betrayed by her former supporters and ousted from power while on a trip to France.

Mrs. Thatcher faces bomb threats, and the invasion of the Falkland Islands and the recalcitrance of the coal miners with the same determined “no compromise” demeanor that caused Khrushchev to dub her “The Iron Lady.” She became good pals with U .S. President Ronald Reagan, forming an intense, if somewhat controversial, mutual admiration duo.

The Iron Lady was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with whom Meryl Streep had such a good time and financial success in Mamma Mia! It was written by another woman, English playwright Abi Morgan, so behind the scenes this film was a successful “girl” project.

But except for the radiance of Meryl Streep (and Alexandra Rope), who no doubt will get another Oscar nomination for this role, the film falls flat. It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s wrong except to say that it’s not ballsy enough–it never takes sides on Mrs. Thatcher’s career–it just presents the highlights and lets the audience make up their mind about what her achievements really were. All well and good if you’re playing “you decide, but the film failed to fill in enough of the controversies going on at the time to help the audience make a judgment. In other words, it seems to be a film made by Britishers for Britishers. Americans will have to do some extra work to get full enjoyment from the film.

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