This weekend I did not go to a new movie. My theater didn’t get either of the ones I wanted to see (Man on a Ledge or One for the Money), instead they only brought in The Grey: that horribly inaccurate and silly action movie where Liam Neeson fights wolves. I refuse to allow the theater to dictate what I review, so I voted stayed home (after sending them a long complaint, of course!) So how did I end up with something to talk about? I went on cheap night to the limited release consolation prize they offered: The Iron Lady
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher becomes Britain’s first female prime minister as well as one of it’s longest serving and most controversial leaders.
I’m not exactly a Thatcher expert myself: the only picture I have of her is the negative one painted by movies I’ve seen about miners and other unemployed industrial workers. What attracted me to this movie was the gender discrimination she had to overcome. Between that and the controversy over her politics, it was a guarantee that this biopic wouldn’t be boring. However, when I saw it I was surprised to find it was also very sympathetic.
The Iron Lady is a true biopic in that it focuses less on Margaret Thatcher the prime minister than on Margaret Thatcher the woman. It tries to paint her as a whole person – warts and all – so there’s really nothing that they flinch away from, which means Meryl Streep (and Alexandra Roach, who plays Thatcher as a young woman) really had something to sink their teeth into. In fact, when it was over, I said something like “holy cow” and my mom said “hello Oscar.”
Isn’t it freaky how much she looks like her?
Abi Morgan’s script showcases Thatcher’s indomitable will in persisting in politics despite the fact that the male members of parliament looked at her like something that was tracked in on the bottom of a shoe.
I want to slap those glasses off the face of Sir Sneers-a-lot over there
Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd also take care to devote a lot of screen time to the close relationship she had with her husband Denis (Harry Lloyd and Jim Broadbent). Denis actually seems like a pretty cool guy, even after he’s dead (don’t ask).
MARGARET: I won’t be one of those women content to be seen on the arm of her husband!
DENIS: But that’s why I want to marry you, my dear.
They also show how the steel spine she had to develop to make it in politics led her to treat others, such as her friend and advisor Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) with a level of coldness and ingratitude that could at best be called “bullying” and at worst be called “being a total bitch.”
How could you hurt Giles’ feelings? He’s just so nice!
But of course, no biopic about a political leader can completely ignore her politics, so through a framing device familiar to anyone who had to read Margaret Lawrence’s The Stone Angel in school, doddering, senile Margaret Thatcher takes us on flashbacks to different points in her life and career as she comes across different mementos of her time in office.
And what portrait of senility would be complete without a hallucination
of your dead husband looking mad as a hatter?
Thatcher took charge of Britain at a point when it was in decline. Where once it was the dominant world power, now America and the Soviet Union had taken over, relegating Britain to a distant third. The economy was down and the government coffers were being overdrawn to support social programs. In her own words, “too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it’. So she withdrew subsidies from unprofitable industries like coal, privatized many national interests, and took a hard line with trade unions. The result was a lot of unemployment and social unrest.
This is what made people shout a lot and bang on her windows.
Thatcher saw what she was doing as giving the nation the bad-tasting medicine that would save its life. She would have remained unpopular and reviled if it hadn’t worked, but it did. Then there was the Falklands War, where Thatcher refused to let a series of small islands off the coast of Argentina be taken over.
Oh goodie, I always hoped I’d get to play with the giant map with the little ships on it.
The economy came back up, war winning pride came into play, and unpopular became simply controversial as the nation developed an appreciation for the fact that her medicine had worked. Essentially, Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s mummy when it was a bratty teenager, railing over its curfews and not being able to go to parties with its friends, and it wasn’t until Britain grew up that it was able to thank her for not letting it turn into a juvenile delinquent. And most of the things the IRA did during that time were definitely delinquent.
Just so you know, kids, car bombing people’s friends is never
an appropriate response to political disagreements.
Because Margaret Thatcher was such a controversial figure, I think this type of sympathetic portrayal could only have been made with the benefit of distance. It’s been more than twenty years now since she left office, which is enough time for most people to cool off and maybe look at Thatcher’s side of things. And you should, especially if you’re a woman. Thatcher may not have been a big supporter of feminism, but she’s one tough lady.