“The Iron Lady” — a failed hit piece and vanity vehicle

We finally got around to watching The Iron Lady, which won Meryl Streep another Best Actress award.  It was a movie that failed at so many levels, most strikingly in its obvious goal of denigrating Margaret Thatcher and leaving a sordid historical record behind.  To appreciate how the movie failed in this manifest goal, you have to understand its structure.

What irked most conservatives about the film was the way in which at least half of it followed an aged, semi-delusional Thatcher around as she engaged in hallucinatory interactions with her long dead husband, Dennis (played with bizarre perkiness by the usually likeable Jim Broadbent).  Conservatives saw this as an attempt to demean Thatcher.  They’re only partially right.  Yes, it was intended to demean Thatcher, but it was also an effort to give Streep as much screen time as possible.  Had the movie followed the entire arc of Thatcher’s life, Alexandra Roach, who did a very credible job as the young Margaret Thatcher, would have had way too much screen time.  The only way in which the film could simultaneously denigrate Thatcher and let Streep show her acting chops was to have a hyper-aged Thatcher wandering around like Lady MacBeth.

The problem with this plot device was twofold:  it was boring and it was confusing.  Rather than having the viewer engaging in a unique and exciting life, the viewer got to wander around a house cleaning out closets.  (Yes, this imaginary aged Thatcher spent a lot of time clearing out closets.)

I also have to argue with the Best Actress award Streep won.  Streep is a mimic more than she is an actress.  At a certain point, mere mimicry becomes dull unless there’s something interesting to bolster it.  Watching Streep spend half the movie mimicking a confused old lady with a British accent was more akin to an acting school graduation performance than a major movie.  I also felt very strongly that Streep couldn’t shake her role as Julia Child in Julie and Julia.  When she wasn’t a delusional old woman, she sounded like a manic version of her take on Julia Child, only with a British accent.  As I struggled not to doze off during the movie’s boring parts, I had weird visions of Margaret Thatcher in the kitchen whacking away at chicken breasts.

The movie makers also played around with the historical record by focusing hard on the riots (and I remember them, as I lived in Britain at the time), and glossing over the successes.  Yes, the Welsh miners did riot.  Yes, there were protests in London.  Yes, the IRA prisoners did go on a hunger strike.  Yes, the attempt at the poll tax was a failure.  These upheavals, and they were the inevitable upheavals attendant upon using the cold turkey method to break people’s dependence on socialism, happened, and they got ugly.  But they were pretty much over by 1983 or 1984.  Thatcher then settled in for years of economic success, which the movie rushed through with a couple of faux newspaper headlines about a booming economy.  The fact that Thatcher held power for eleven years despite the upheavals speaks volumes for the way in which she enabled the British to begin functioning again for the first time since the end of WWII.

The Falklands War also manages to depict the pain without the pleasure.  I lived in England during that short-lived war and the British people were generally supportive of it and, as I remember, deliriously happy with the outcome.  Even the hardened Leftists at the university I attended couldn’t completely hide their chauvinistic delight in a British victory over the perfidious Argentinians.

Mostly, though, the movie fails because, when it’s honest about Thatcher’s life and career, she comes off so impressively.  Her belief in the individual’s greatness and ability is what won a demoralized British people to her side in 1979 and that kept them there for the next eleven years.  She was tough, she was focused, and she was deeply committed to the old-fashioned virtue of self reliance, one that served her country so well.  The recreations of her speeches are inspiring — which was yet another reason to focus, not on her actual life, but on an imaginary version of what the movie’s makers assume must be a pathetic old age, riddled with the guilt only conservatives can feel.

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  • http://OgBlog.net Earl

    I’m not going to watch the movie, because I have better things to do with my time! I’d heard about it, but not in the detail you’ve provided.
    By the way, anyone who wishes for a short but sweet analysis of Maggie Thatcher’s effect on the UK can go hear it from Robin Leach:

  • jj

    Your fourth graf is spot on.  Meryl Streep doesn’t actually possess any “acting chops,” but she is a superlative mimic, and a splendid researcher.  Presented with a role, she will tirelessly hunt down someone on which to base her performance – which in her case means “imitate” – and will then proceed to recreate her model.  And while it must be said she’s great at that, it must also be said it isn’t really acting.  I don’t quite understand her success.

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Earl:  Here at the Bookworm Room, we watch the movies so you don’t have to.

    jj:  I wish I could claim credit for that “mimic” insight, but I can’t.  Someone at Breitbart.com wrote it and it resonated with me so strongly, I adopted it as my own.  I’ve always found Streep movies dull because, once one gets over how clever her imitation is, there’s seldom anything.  She’s the Rich Little of the intellectual set, only he was funny, and she’s not.  Interestingly, the only movie of hers that I liked was a silly piece of action-adventure fluff called The River Wild, where she played a Mom defending her kid against bad guys (including Kevin Bacon), who hijacked her raft.  (Yes, that’s not a typo.  The bad guys hijacked a raft.)  She brought a charming energy to the role.

  • Texan99

    Yes, it was all about Ms. Thatcher’s comeuppance. The filmmakers couldn’t quite ignore her successes and still have a story, so they chose the narrative device of a long struggle followed by a brief apparent victory, culminating in an immediate slide into disgrace and obscurity.  They passed over the victory as fast as possible, while studding it with constant petty reminders of how she was neglecting her family and sowing the seeds of her later isolation.  What a hateful little piece it was.

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