When The Iron Lady came out, my better half surprised me by expressing serious interest in seeing it. The Baroness is not generally prone to a desire to see the biopics of conservative icons, but her explanation made some sense to me: growing up Thatcher was one of the only (or perhaps THE only) powerful women political leaders. Regardless of her political beliefs, Thatcher was a role model for BVH, and the film had the added attraction of featuring Meryl Streep (Adaptation) in the title role. In the end we did not see it in the theater, but waited until last week.
My expectations were suitably low, which is a great thing for seeing movies in most cases. I knew going in I could expect it to lionize someone I do not see eye to eye with politically. The montages of Thatcher breaking the power of British unions are certainly not celebratory, but made me cringe all the same.
Putting aside my political views, let’s talk about how the movie tells its story. The Iron Lady features one of the most distracting, depressing, and just plain poor framing devices I’ve seen, and manages to incorporate one of my least favorite plot devices.* We meet Lady Thatcher as a doddering old woman, surrounded by security and a personal assistant, but clearly suffering severely the effects of age. Thatcher spends a third of the film or more as an elderly woman, ravaged by dementia, half reminiscing, half hallucinating events of her life, assisted by a vision of her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, Hot Fuzz). I considered putting a spoiler warning here, but if I were less of a clueless Yank I’d have known that Denis died in 2003. An informed audience would know from the start that Thatcher is senile and simply imagining her husband is with her.
Is the fact of Thatcher’s current condition any reason to dwell on it? I came here to see a movie about what Thatcher did, not about who she is now and the challenges she faces. A great movie could be made showing how even the most powerful and intellectually gifted leaders can lose the ability to remember essential facts such as the death of loved ones, a film that shows us the human frailty of this beloved (and hated) leader. That could work, but The Iron Lady is not that film. The “modern-day” scenes are distracting, boring, predictable, and, at times, even a little insulting.
Another weakness of The Iron Lady is its prevailing theme of turning the old “behind every great man is a great woman” saw on its head. Denis helps Margaret along every step of the way, cheerful even in the face of an IRA bombing. Again, were I less of a clueless Yank, perhaps I’d know Denis’s reputation for humor and the credit Thatcher gave him in her success; but it is strange to focus so much of this powerful woman’s story on her husband, however important he was to her. By all means, give us a look into her personal life, but not at the expense of Thatcher the world leader.
Focusing on Thatcher’s regret at losing her husband and showing her in her current state is meant to humanize Thatcher, to makes us feel that she is, underneath it all, just like us, but it is so overdone it transforms her into a pathetic figure, with perhaps just a little update of the ancient idea of the physical cost of power thrown in for good measure.** I’m sure similar films about male leaders private lives and last days exist; but considering the dearth of powerful female figures in the modern Western world, could the filmmakers perhaps shown us more of Thatcher’s political life? The Iron Lady features good performances and the production values you expect from a prestige biopic, but I found the storytelling decisions were too distracting for me to really enjoy it.
*Yes, even though an informed audience would know that Denis is dead going in, the film plays coy with the information for quite a while, making it one more example of a “major character exists only in the head of the lead” twists, one of the most overused devices in film starting in the late 1990s. Can we please retire it? Please?
**One of my all time favorites being the fate of Sulla, who was, at least according to Plutarch, consumed by maggots (please turn to book 36).