Given the politically-charged environment we’ve been in since October last year, it seems fitting that the release of The Iron Lady, a biopic of sorts on Margaret Thatcher, should arrive at this time while so much is still so electric and contradicting about our own female politicians.
The film, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mama Mia!) focuses on the years Thatcher (Meryl Streep, under heavy make-up and in scintillating form) has spent out of power while allegedly grappling with dementia. The sense of improbability surrounding the disease is clear from the start: Thatcher buying milk at a convenience store, unrecognized by the cashier and general public. She returns home to kvetch to her dead husband Denis (the ever solid Jim Broadbent) about how expensive the milk was. While she carries on an imaginary conversation, her personal assistant worries what could have happened to her unaided to the police. Shortly after, a dinner party triggers off flashback sequences that interchange with the present and that is the basis of this controversial film.
Lloyd treats the situation as myopic as possible and this works well when Thatcher is alone with her memories. Indeed, it is a leader’s own view of their career in retrospect so, from that angle, the film is brilliant. Yet, a more realistic feeling would be one of lingering resentment, a sentiment The Iron Lady refuses to delve into as a means of examining Thatcher as the biopic spans a mere three days in her life.
While many critics and aides to Thatcher have rubbished the film’s writing and narrowed scope—citing egoism--one crucial disadvantage that clearly hobbles it is that Baroness Thatcher is still very much alive. Like Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II a few years ago, we’re in ‘wing it’ territory and The Iron Lady thus has its fair share of hit and miss moments. Streep, of course, is flawless and the long wait for the inevitable third Oscar clearly is over. The opening seven minutes alone feature a stunning range from the actress. Streep never lets up nor goes overboard with the role. There are two sheer genius moments: the first when the dementia is hinted at and she covers by blaming her inner circle in the Cabinet, using faulty grammar as a ruse. The other is that split second change from frown to smile after her resignation, with the media impatiently awaiting her outside 10 Downing Street.
What Streep and script can’t adequately show us is Thatcher’s hunger years or even those tentative ones where she sat in the backbench of Parliament. Her tenure as Education minister is vacant while her surly determination and power-broking deals before the 1979 election are pared down to a minimum. When the film hits these cues, it feels rushed, as if fleeing from unnecessary moments of a life well beyond that era. Case in point, at her maiden speech as Prime Minister loud jeers could be clearly heard at intervals. The film retraces this through her perspective with all cheers and happiness.
Within these moments of rawness and inaccuracy lie limitations that will frustrate anyone unfamiliar with Thatcher and why even now she is reviled by so many Brits. Lloyd’s film is quasi-reverential, as if daring not to ruffle too many Thatcher sympathizers or to simply embellish the effect of her dire social policies. This perhaps deals less with Lloyd’s own direction but more with the ambiguity with which female leadership is treated globally. Thatcher remains Britain’s only female prime minister even though they’d had a woman head of state for more than half a century. The Iron Lady, astonishingly, never gives credence to the sentiment that made Thatcher the leader possible at any point other than her will not to ‘die washing tea-cups’. The tea-cup point made early on thus hangs over the biopic right throughout, as if some phantom conscience of a promise either kept or broken. We see so much of the aging decline of this remarkable woman yet are shielded from her own personal craftiness and gifts as a politician. To serve as the country’s longest post-war prime minister, one imagines she must have had wiles to survive so long. Her henchmen like Airey Neville are purged here of deviousness. What shines through instead is the brilliance of yet another Streep tour-de-force and an able supporting cast.
It’s a frustrating template but the same circumstances heralded the rise of others like Julia Gillard and Kamla Persad-Bissessar, both loved and detested in equal measure. Both served as junior ministers in popular Cabinets before usurping leaders who underestimated them. Like Thatcher, we’re no closer to really knowing these women on the idealistic level that got them to where they are today. And no film adaptation of their lives will truly reveal much insight either other than what we already know—so precise is the effect of all their mythologies--these women just simply are.