I lived in England from 1984 to 1986, during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister. It was a time of change and turmoil. The IRA was active and bombs did go off in London while I was there. The Miner’s Union tried to bring down the government with a strike, as they had Ted Heath’s government in the 1970’s. Two years before I arrived, in 1982, Thatcher had sent the armed forces to recapture the Falkland Islands after Argentina had invaded.
But there was also a renewal that was happening. The success of the Falkland invasion lifted the spirit of the people. Areas like the London Docklands, which had been slums for decades, underwent rejuvenation as companies built new buildings and new jobs became available. The economy was strong, and the outlook overall for the country was positive after being downcast pretty much since the end of the Second World War.
So I was looking forward to seeing The Iron Lady. I had visions of a wonderful historical piece that illuminated a complex individual and gave us an understanding of her and her times. Yesterday I settled into my seat, filled with anticipation.
The movie began with Thatcher (Meryl Streep) in her dotage, stopping in at a local shop to get some milk and not being recognized by anyone. She returns home to make breakfast for her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). In a quite effective shot, the audience realizes just how far the great leader has slipped.
Okay, I thought. Starting near the end can be an effective framing device for a story. A good example is Lawrence of Arabia, where it shows the motorcycle accident that took Lawrence’s life and his funeral, and then goes back to the beginning of his story. Another example is Gandhi, which starts by showing Gandhi’s assassination from one viewpoint, and then closes with the assassination from Gandhi’s own point of view.
But the framing scenes, set in 2008 at the time of the terrorist attack on Mumbai, kept going on and on and on. While there were some flashes of her background, the movie kept returning to the aged Thatcher.
You get to see a little of the young Margaret (Alexandra Roach), watching her father as he gave a political speech. Her getting into Oxford merits a brief mention, but not her major – chemistry – or that her political career began with becoming the head of the Oxford Conservative Students Association, quite an accomplishment in 1940’s England for a woman. (Margaret almost missed out on Oxford, getting in only after another student dropped out – history would have been very different if she hadn’t made it in.) It was actually through an Oxford friend that she got her first chance to run for Parliament in 1951, in the town of Dartford. This part of the movie plays loose with history. It has Margaret facing a group of men who denigrate her ability but somehow still choose her as their candidate. In fact, she strongly impressed the leaders. It was here that she met Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd) – that much is correct – but the movie portrays him as pretty much a callow youth. In fact he was ten years her senior, already a wealthy businessman, and was also recently divorced.
Instead of really looking in depth at her character, the director, Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia) and the screenwriter, Abi Morgan (Shame), spend about 2/3rds of the movie looking at the elderly Thatcher as her mind slips away. Instead of framing the picture, all you really get is the frame, with maybe a couple of brushstrokes of color on a very small canvas. The movie is notable for how much it doesn’t tell about its subject, and how it misleads with what it does say.
All the other politicians are anonymous old white dudes that Morgan can’t be bother with fleshing out. Although there are some excellent actors in these roles (Richard E. Grant, Anthony Stewart Head, Roger Allam), none of them is given any definition. Even Jim Broadbent is stuck in a broad caricature of Denis, rather than giving illumination to his support of Margaret through the years. Not a word is mentioned about how he allowed her to go back and get her law degree after they got married – a highly unusual move for a man in the 1950’s.
Meryl Streep’s performance as Thatcher is incredible, but it could have been even better if she’d been given some actual conflicts with characters. Instead Morgan follows a constant pattern of having some of the anonymous politicians present her with a problem, and then Streep makes some bravura statement. And then there may be some archival footage shown. They don’t even get to her tenure as Prime Minister until the last third of the movie, and while several of the major conflicts are presented, they’re done in such a muddled way that you’re given no understanding of what was happening. Thatcher’s relationship with Ronald Reagan is reduced to showing them waltzing together.
This movie should have been called “The Rusty Lady” for that appears to be all that these filmmakers can handle or want to focus on. If you really want to find out anything about Margaret Thatcher, do not think you’ll get it from this movie. You’d be better off reading a biography of her. Actually, you’d get more from the Cliff’s Notes version of the biography, and it would have more dramatic tension than this movie.