When I first heard that Meryl Streep was undertaking the portrayal of one of my least-favorite 20th-century heads of state, Margaret Thatcher, I was ambivalent about going to see The Iron Lady. My fear was that this Prime Minister among contemporary American actresses, who has graced many a fine film (and partially redeemed several poor ones) with her presence, would work so hard at doing Thatcher justice that she would render her squirmily sympathetic. But fear not, Gentle Reader: The Iron Lady is not hagiography, and Streep’s and director Phyllida Lloyd’s presentation of this controversial public figure is admirably evenhanded. Whatever shade of politics you walk in with when you enter the theatre is likely to remain intact when you walk out.
Not every reviewer has responded with the same takeaway message, of course. Thatcher’s twin children, Mark and Carol, reportedly called the movie a “left-wing fantasy,” which seems a bit harsh. Until rather late into her term at the apex of the British political establishment – about the beginning of the third act of the movie, actually – we don’t get our noses rubbed too hard in Thatcher’s brand of hard-line conservatism. Rather, her politics seem at first to grow naturally out of her upbringing as the daughter of a Tory alderman, who works very hard in her father’s grocery and remembers to cover the butter whenever the Blitzkrieg comes by.
The wartime slogan “Keep calm and carry on” could have been coined just for young Maggie, and her emphasis on self-reliance and persistence at first seems rather admirable. It’s only when her success goes to her head that the movie Thatcher becomes so ossified in her views that she begins making spectacularly bad policy decisions, scorning the advice of her slightly-less-conservative Cabinet members, whom she views as spineless, and humiliating them in meetings to the point where they eventually desert her sinking ship.
Much has been made of the movie’s surprising depiction of Thatcher as a sort of feminist icon: a steely-nerved, ambitious young brainiac who has to put up with an awful lot of male condescension before she finally breaks through the glass ceiling. But becoming Britain’s first female Prime Minister doesn’t necessarily make her a perfect role model. Thatcher is shown here as what feminists call a Queen Bee type: a thick-skinned, self-made woman who expects everybody else to do the same, and would never think to mentor or collaborate with the younger women who are inspired by her example. Indeed, she says explicitly at an early point in the movie, while she’s still trying to crack the old boys’ club and stand for Parliament for the first time, that she much prefers the company of men.
We see the roots of this attitude in the lack of support for young Margaret’s ambitions to attend Oxford on the part of her chilly drudge of a mother. We see the fruits that it bears in her strained, hypercritical relationship with her own daughter (she dotes on her son, however – to the point that he moves to South Africa once he’s grown, presumably seeking a bit of breathing room). It may be the depiction of these uncomfortable family dynamics, rather than of her growing political unpopularity, that made the real-life Thatcher scions dislike the film. They also probably disapprove of the narrative’s framing device, in which the whole biography unspools in flashbacks from the point of view of an aging woman whose pride is being wounded daily by her inexorable descent into senile dementia and her growing inability to “do for herself.”
Thatcher’s Greek chorus and sounding board is the recurring hallucination of her late husband Denis, played with characteristic goofy charm by one of British cinema’s most essential and quirky character actors, Jim Broadbent. Though he shares her Tory politics, Denis Thatcher comes off as a much warmer-and-fuzzier human being than the spunky wife whose “unfeminine” ambitions he has always staunchly supported. Though she nags him about every tiny detail of his dress and behavior, Denis rarely says a critical word beyond addressing her as “Boss.”
The crucial challenge that the contemporary Margaret must address in the three-day period that frames the movie is whether or not she can steel herself to clean out and discard her long-dead husband’s wardrobe, golf clubs and other personal effects. When she finally does pit herself to the dreaded task, she finds a box of Denis’ keepsakes attesting a close relationship with his children: grade-school artwork and handmade birthday cards. Margaret’s mementos, by contrast, are mostly framed photographs of herself posing with members of Parliament, the royal family and foreign heads of state. We are left with the question of whether the homely sorts of things that Margaret Thatcher sacrificed for power and glory were a matter of choice or of necessity.
So in the end, although we see lots of both reenactments and actual news footage of the controversial byproducts of the Thatcher regime – IRA bombings, the Brixton riots, the miners’ strike, the carnage of the Falkland Islands war – The Iron Lady remains a personal story of a very flawed but very brave and determined human being. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Meryl Streep pulling it off so handsomely, and no one should be too surprised if that Best Actress Oscar nomination turns into a win. It’s not just that she’s long-overdue for another award; Streep really did earn it this time.