The Iron Lady: Not so Iron After All?

The Iron Lady is an interesting and thought provoking venture that chronicles the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher’s political career through an elderly Thatcher’s eyes. The film, starring Meryl Streep (Out of Africa, The Devil Wears Prada) as Margaret Thatcher and Jim Broadbent (Iris, Moulin Rouge) as her husband, Dennis, could easily be considered three tales combined into one. The first, the movie I was expecting to see, is the chronicle of the rise and fall of Margret Thatcher’s political career and a portrayal of one of the Western World’s most important recent female leaders. The second story is the attempt of an old woman to accept her beloved husband’s death and her own encroaching dementia. The third, is the story of a woman who has lived an incredible life and is now trying to make sense of it while facing an increasingly mundane and trying future. Each piece was beautifully portrayed and filmed. Together, they create a film worth watching.

The timing of this film could not be better. With Angela Merkel, the champion of Europe’s future gracing the news and the Euro’s value sinking, Margaret Thatcher seems more prescient than ever. Her fight against the United Kingdom entering the EU and adopting the euro, though only briefly mentioned in the film, appears especially pertinent and proper.

It was the acting of Streep, Broadbent, and the entire cast including Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as well as the directing of Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia) that saved a disappointing script and captured the essence of Thatcher’s political career. That essence, however, was severely downplayed by the excessive amount of time spent with an elderly Thatcher. At times I felt I was watching my grandmother near the end of her life rather than Lady Margret Thatcher. The movie could certainly have benefited from more time spent chronicling her career and less time with the elderly Thatcher. The clips chronicling the years Thatcher spent in office seem rushed and, in conjunction with the amount of time spent meditating on Thatcher’s age and vulnerability, cause one to leave the theater no longer viewing her as the Iron Lady, but as something much softer. With Lady Thatcher currently living a private life, the excessive portrayal of her declining health appears intrusive, if not exploitive.

Even as an elderly Thatcher, however, Streep continues to shine. She deftly portrayed Thatcher’s presumed terror at the deterioration of her mind, the grief over a lost husband, and the lack of acceptance of her now irrelevant, almost helpless existence. I could feel Thatcher’s pain come through the screen and seep into my veins. With the help of the editor and director, her pain nearly moved me to tears several times.

Nevertheless, despite Streep’s extraordinary performance, the movie left me feeling unsettled. This movie did not shy away from any negative aspects of Thatcher; rather, it was critical of much of her life. Her desire to have things her way, ambition, refusal to back down, and lack of patience were all highlighted to the point where Lady Thatcher almost appeared defined by them. While the movie both belittles and praises Thatcher, on the whole it is not a favorable portrayal, and it is an uncomfortable process to watch someone you admire for their strength and intellect reduced to a vulnerable and forgetful old woman.

The Iron Lady, like The King’s Speech, benefited from being produced as a motion picture, rather than in another form, since the camera was able to give a proper emphasis to details such as Thatcher’s iconic handbag and pearls.  Furthermore, the mixing of archive footage of the real Thatcher and the events of her time in office with Streep’s portrayal gave the movie added credibility and gravitas.

I think the film is one worth watching, but it did not live up to its name or the legacy that Thatcher has created. It was interesting and thought provoking, with some wonderful moments, but it could have been so much more. It could have told a more detailed story of the Iron Lady.


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