The Iron Lady

From certain angles, Meryl Streep is almost unrecognizable as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Mostly it’s the teeth — those aggressive Thatcher choppers, snapping men and syllables in half, often at the same time. (Sometimes it’s also the old-age make-up, which in some scenes under dim lighting looks glaringly caked on.) Streep has some touching moments in the movie, when Thatcher is old and addled, hallucinating the presence of her long-dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). These scenes have a simple and basic power: she could be any old woman pining for her lost love, lost sanity, lost youth. But she isn’t any old woman — she’s Margaret Thatcher. And the movie, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, tries hard to locate the humanity in a public figure of whom Elvis Costello memorably sang, “When they finally put you in the ground/I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.” (Costello is still waiting; out of office twenty years now, Thatcher turned 86 last year.)

The Iron Lady is a bit confused. It celebrates Thatcher’s strength as a woman making a go of it in male-dominated politics, but seems to regret that it had to be this woman. Thatcher, who came from a humble working-class background, seemed to fetishize pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, which is fine unless you’re too poor to have bootstraps, or boots. Anyway, liberal feminists watching Thatcher being sneeringly debated by Liberal party members (photographed to look piggish and sexist, though at that point they’re denouncing her policies, not her gender) may feel a bit of dissonance. The film doesn’t seem all that interested in the things Thatcher said and did as Prime Minister; its heart is in the later scenes of loneliness, but the tone is so wobbly that I don’t know whether we’re meant to take pity on a suffering old person or take pleasure in her downfall.

Streep dominates, and Broadbent pops in to comfort or taunt from beyond the grave. Here and there, reliable farceurs like Richard E. Grant and Anthony Stewart Head show up, plotting or being humiliated; it’s a pity Michael Sheen couldn’t drag out his Tony Blair one more time, but whatever. Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed Streep in Mamma Mia) mainly sticks to the stately rhythms of a conventional biopic, with odd little shards of absurdity, including two separate uses of the doofus punk band Notsensibles’ single “I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher.” The mood, I think, would like to sidle up to half-admiration, half-satire, as in Ed Wood or The People Vs. Larry Flynt. But some of the scenes of old Thatcher wobbling around her bleak gray house, chasing after voices in other rooms that may or may not be real, are poised between tragedy and comedy in a way that might strike even Elvis Costello as cruel. The filmmakers haven’t come to any conclusion about Thatcher or, indeed, why they made a movie about her. Streep, in the political scenes, scrupulously acts Thatcher’s defiance in the abstract but doesn’t, or can’t, bring much conviction to what she’s actually saying.

In brief, the split between Thatcher the private person and Thatcher the politician isn’t dramatized or even comprehended. How someone from a working-class background goes on to become a person widely noted for her lack of compassion for the unemployed is well beyond this movie. And I hate to say it, but the device of gathering the splinters of an elderly person’s memories was handled with far more poetry in Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters — whose openly gay protagonist James Whale may have fashioned a tart rejoinder to Thatcher’s complaint “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” (If you’re waiting for Meryl Streep to deliver that line and still come off as a poignant figure in decline, you have a long wait in store — the movie neglects, among other things, the noxious and bigoted Section 28.) The Iron Lady is not in love with Margaret Thatcher, nor does it yearn to tramp the dirt down. It scatters some banalities about misunderstood powerful women, floats the notion that Thatcher was a different kind of feminist, then pulls back, then floats, then pulls back. The dithering becomes irritating. What’s next — an is-she-crazy-or-just-too-bold biopic of Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann?

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4 Comments on “The Iron Lady”

  1. igl54 Says:

    My husband and I saw The Woman of Steel last week at the
    Regal Nickoldeon5 in N. Falmouth, MA. I could not disagree with you more as far as your opinion and your review. Meryl Streep did an excellent job (as usual) playing Margaret Thatcher. She had all of her mannerisms, etc. down pact. After reading your entire review, I felt like we did not go to see the same movie. I am very very disappointed in your review Rob. If I knew nothing about the movie; never saw Meryl Streep act before; after reading your horribly unfair review, I would have never gone to see the movie.
    Consequently my husband and I would have missed a very good
    movie. What, may I ask, is your background that makes you such a movie critic?

    • Rob Gonsalves Says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I wasn’t criticizing Streep so much as the structure that didn’t allow her to play to her strengths.

      You should never depend too much on only one person’s opinion to decide whether to see a movie. That’s what the aggregation of various reviews at Rotten Tomatoes is for. Ultimately it’s your responsibility to see or not see something that does or doesn’t appeal to you, regardless of what critics say. This isn’t Consumer Reports. Criticism of art is always subjective.

      My background is 25 years of watching, thinking about and writing about movies.

      • igl54 Says:

        Nice response Rob. I have been watching movies many many more years that you. You probably weren’t even born when I
        started going to movies.

        All I can say is that that is your interpretation of the movie.

        Unfortunately I do not agree with you.

      • Rob Gonsalves Says:

        It would indeed be a boring world if we all agreed about everything.


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