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.