Ineptly written by Abi Morgan and haphazardly directed by Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady, purportedly having something to do with Margaret Thatcher, the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister (1979-90), is one big—and drearily long—head-scratcher. While it alludes to actual social, political and geopolitical events in which Thatcher participated, it has no sense of period and fails to convey the depth of the legacy of Thatcher’s “principled” but inhuman policies. It would indeed appear that this failure was deliberate on Lloyd’s part. How do we not infer this from her frighteningly obtuse remark, “Margaret Thatcher is the most significant female political leader Great Britain has had since Elizabeth I”? To Lloyd, then, Thatcher’s policies were irrelevant no matter their heinous impact on people’s lives and the soul of the nation. She has instead mounted the stupid, misguided, depraved Thatcher on a narrow “feminist” base. All that matters to Lloyd is that Thatcher is a woman; against this, what she did as a leader on the national and world stages doesn’t matter.
Nor is this the furthest reach of Lloyd’s foolishness. Perhaps to highlight Thatcher’s being a woman, Lloyd has preposterously made her ultra-feminine and—brace yourself—a glamour puss. Anyone with the faintest recollection of Thatcher during the years of her Conservative Party rule will be aghast at this. Thatcher was someone who had no feminine or womanly accent at all in her attitude or demeanor. (By way of marital balance, Denis Thatcher was effeminate.) Lloyd so obsessively has the camera follow the lead actress’s shapely legs and (in elegant heels) feet that one is moved to discount the spun steel Thatcher-hair that the movie more or less duplicates. All in all, star Meryl Streep never in her life has looked so soft and appealing as she does, unsuitably, here.
Streep’s performance, for which she won her third—her second best actress—Oscar, is exquisitely wrought,* but it has nothing whatsoever to do with Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, at a number of points it is indistinguishable from her more accurate, and ebullient, impersonation of Julia Child in Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009). For the record, Alexandra Roach is also excellent as the young Thatcher, and the two actresses convincingly “match up.”
Finally, it is to be pitied that Morgan and Lloyd did nothing to probe the origins and mechanism of the dementia that both Thatcher and her U.S. counterpart, Ronald Reagan, drifted into. (I believe that Thatcher is still with us—but apart, secluded, because of her illness.) Had they possessed the curiosity, intelligence and imagination to do this, we might better appreciate why the two leaders pursued their pernicious policies regarding, among other things, business deregulation, the privatization of public institutions, and assaults on the working class and unions. Perhaps these two peas from the same diseased political pod were somehow always destined to be so much alike. Still, if we are to take Lloyd’s film at all seriously, we must also note that Thatcher, at least when she is old and infirm, most resembles Richard Nixon. She, too, is a morbidly sentimental, hallucinating drunk.
* Streep’s Thatcher also won her best actress prizes from the British Academy, the London critics, and the New York critics.
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