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The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep stars in "The Iron Lady"

A Heavy Mettled Lady

The Iron Lady

There’s pretty much of a general consensus that Meryl Streep’s starring turn as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is a triumph. The consensus is just about on the mark. From now on, Streep will probably be remembered by many people for this performance. It may or may not be the finest moment in her long career, but there’s no question that it’s an impressive, finely wrought creation. It’s a shrewd and consistently sustained one, as it had to be to succeed since Streep is in every scene. To a substantial extent, her performance is this movie. Streep doesn’t just deliver a showy, pitch-perfect mimicry, she gives us a real, full-bodied dramatic character.

The character the actress embodies so compellingly is also the product of director Phyllida Lloyd and scripter Abi Morgan’s initial conceit. They’ve taken an old device—the great man or lady looking back on a career or life—and doubled down on it. Perhaps one-half of Iron Lady is devoted to showing us Thatcher in her dotage, doddering and pottering around her flat, having long since been forced into retirement by rebellious senior members of her own Conservative Party. Here, she’s “visited” by her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). Her hallucinated spouse playfully prods and spars with her, and joins her in reminiscences of their life. There are also a lot of flashbacks to her remarkable political career (although the movie often doesn’t make clear when these are Thatcher’s or only the filmmakers’).

Iron Lady grounds the future political leader’s story in her father’s small Lincolnshire grocery story, where she drinks deeply of his socially humble but proud tradesman’s philosophy of severe individualism. This young Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach) is something of a daddy’s girl; she receives his encouragement to strive for a life beyond this limited social heritage. A little oddly, the movie skips over her life at the University of Oxford, which must have been crucially important in her social and political progress, given her circumscribed origins. Instead, it jumps ahead to her first uncertain, unsuccessful political efforts, her meeting with the jaunty, tolerant-minded young Denis (Harry Lloyd), and her eventual election to the House of Commons, depicted as a sort of clamorous, macho political mosh pit. On the day she drives off to take her seat, her two young children run after the car, feeling abandoned, as she pays them little heed.

This briefly limned incident is a part of Iron Lady’s portrait of a driving force of a woman who was self-absorbedly neglectful of her family, but who cloaked her great personal ambition in broad-stroke political statements. Lloyd and Morgan seem conflicted or unsure about their contentious subject. Her grit and breaching of the walls of sexual and class privileges seem to have elicited their admiration, but they’ve done Thatcher no favor by their framing device. They’ve made it work narratively and cinematically, but their approach seems to evince serious reservations, even a distaste for Thatcher, even as their picture covers her singular accomplishments against unfavorable odds and circumstances. (Her accomplishments have had little obvious effect on British public life, which is still dominated by well-born white males.)

The movie’s implicit but unmistakable disapproval must have political as well as personal roots, but it treats Thatcher’s epical political importance sketchily and hurriedly. She was in the vanguard of capitalistic push-back against British working-class militance and gains in the 1970s and 1980s. She and her movement managed to institute fundamental changes in the country’s political economy, transformative changes that were roughly paralleled in Reagan’s America in the same period. Thatcher famously proclaimed that “There is no society, there are only individuals.” Many millions are still being affected by the imposition of this bleak, top-down ethos.

The widespread rap on Iron Lady is that it doesn’t coherently confront this political history or its significance. Partly, this just goes with the territory. Feature films are usually rather inferior vehicles for political illumination. But this one exacerbates the problem with its emphasis on a physically diminished and intellectually off-kilter central character. It sentimentalizes and condescends to her, and to the audience, I think.

At one juncture, a young Margaret protests to Denis that she doesn’t want to end her days “washing up tea cups.” It was Chekhov who proposed that introducing a loaded gun onstage early on will almost inevitably lead to its being fired later. Guess what happens to the movie’s Thatcher. The irony is much too cute.

Watch the trailer for The Iron Lady

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