Meryl Streep, 1, Margaret Thatcher, 0
Meryl Streep may very well win a third Oscar for her performance in The Iron Lady, a biopic that purports to tell the story of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister. Poor Margaret! Why was it necessary to place such emphasis on her dementia, giving short shrift to her time as a world leader and more emphasis on her days as a doddering old woman who talks to her dead husband, forgets that her son lives in South Africa, and wanders out to buy milk, no one recognizing the woman who once ran the country.
Streep perfectly mimics Thatcher’s voice and mannerisms, “screeching” as she addresses Parliament and defiantly staring down her opponents. Kudos to the makeup, hair, and costume teams that transformed her into a close facsimile of the British leader. For those of us who remember those days when Thatcher and President Reagan were close comrades, Streep’s portrayal brings us back to a time when the two superpowers still commanded respect. It’s ironic that both leaders, once distinguished by their quick wit and oratorical talents, suffered the loss of their mental faculties. We bet, however, that while Nancy Reagan is alive, no one will dare portray her Ronnie in such a disparaging manner. Indeed, Thatcher’s two children, Carol and Mark, have criticized the film’s depiction of their mother.
To viewers who may know little about Thatcher, the film makes her achievements seem insignificant, the high point coming with the British victory in the Falklands War. The character never rises above the stereotype of the career woman battling in a male-dominated environment whose husband and children suffer from her success. There are huge gaps in her life story that leave us wondering how we got from point A to point B.
The film opens with Thatcher’s milk-buying trip, her daughter and staff upset that she has left the house unaccompanied. As prime minister, Thatcher once stood on the world stage, now the walls are closing in on her. The home where she spends her days and nights seems dark, dreary, and claustrophobic. She can’t bear to pack away her husband’s clothing. Touching his garments, she carries on long conversations with the deceased Denis, played by Jim Broadbent. These imaginary interactions—where the two sing, dance, drink, watch videos, go through albums, and discuss past failures and successes—seem more real than anything actually happening.
Alexandra Roach plays the young Margaret, the daughter of a grocer who is also an alderman. Margaret goes off to Oxford yet scant attention is paid to her time in school. Aside from the influence of her father, what propelled her to aspire to a career in politics, specifically, winning a seat in Parliament? She meets and marries Denis, a wealthy businessman (although we never learn what he does and how he made his fortune), giving her the freedom to pursue her political career.
She wins her seat in Parliament and, disillusioned with her party, decides to stand for leader of the Conservative Party. Against all odds, she wins and becomes prime minister, moving into 10 Downing Street.
These were the days of bombings by the Irish Republican Army, and Thatcher’s most trusted ally and adviser, Airey Neave (Anthony Head), is assassinated with a car bomb. Things go downhill from there. While Thatcher sticks to her guns throughout the Falklands War, her other battles, mostly on the economic front, don’t fare as well. The film portrays her as stubborn and intractable, unable to grasp that the country is railing against taxes and that union strikes will further weaken her leadership. The turning point, an acrimonious cabinet meeting, is never fully fleshed out. After 11 years, the party forces her resignation. She leaves 10 Downing Street holding back tears, bitter and defeated.
Filmmakers have fallen in love with the flashback. Some use this storytelling technique better than others. In The Iron Lady, the device merely serves to confuse. The story lurches between past and present, real and imagined. Just when we begin to follow Thatcher as prime minister, we are thrust back into her dementia-driven world, losing the momentum of the story line.
The ending, where we see Denis dancing into the light, minus his shoes, seems trite. Margaret finally packs away his clothes and engages in an activity she told Denis she would never perform—washing her teacup. We’re hit in the face with the metaphor—washing up, washed up, get it?
Streep never fails to give her all and she embodies Thatcher with all the character she can muster. It’s too bad she wasn’t provided with a better script.