Mark my words: Meryl Streep’s work in The Iron Lady will earn her an Oscar nomination. But don’t make the mistake of believing it was preordained, stemming solely from the idea that it’s fashionable to nominate her. It will happen because, true to her chameleon-like ability to virtually disappear into any role, she truly does give one of the year’s best performances as Margaret Thatcher, who made history in 1979 by becoming England’s first (and to date, only) female Prime Minister. She would remain in this position until her resignation in 1990. A staunch member of the British Conservative Party, for which she became Leader as well as the Leader of the Opposition, she was both revered and heavily criticized for her conflict with trade unions, her efforts to deregulate the financial sector, and her role in industrial privatization.
What I suspect will divide audiences is the way in which Thatcher’s life story is told. It’s not a political commentary so much as a personal reflection, with much of the plot unfolding as a series of fragmented flashback sequences. I found this approach quite fascinating, as I wasn’t being bombarded with partisan rhetoric; I was delving into someone’s mind. In the present day, we see a frail old woman in the early stages of dementia. She knows her husband, Denis, has been dead nearly ten years, and yet she continues to see and talk to him as plainly as if he were alive. In visionary form – and, of course, during the flashbacks – he’s portrayed by Jim Broadbent. What I find interesting is that, in both manifestations, he has an uncanny ability to tell Margaret things she might not want to hear but certainly needs to know.
While some of her political career is highlighted, most notably her direct involvement in the Falklands War of 1982, much of it is either vaguely alluded to or altogether unaddressed. We don’t even get an explanation for how she earned the nickname The Iron Lady (in case you’re wondering, it came from her opposition to the Soviet Union). What director Phyllida Lloyd seems more interested in are the events and people that shaped her conservative views. Her father, for example, was Alfred Roberts (Iain Glen), a Methodist preacher and an alderman who would eventually become the Mayor of Grantham. The film depicts a man who firmly believed in getting by on your own steam; this would have a profound impact on young Margaret (Alexandra Roach), who would grow older with a strict belief that results were achieved through actions, not feelings.
Indeed, she was independent, determined, and strong willed. But at what cost? Personally, she placed her ambitions ahead of her husband and children, presumably because she refused to live an ordinary domestic life. Professionally, the policies that revitalized the British economy also led to a notable decrease in the welfare of the people; more people were unemployed halfway through her premiership than when she first came into power, and by the time she resigned, nearly 30% of British children were living below the poverty line. It seems she believed that the government could not be held responsible for social issues and therefore should not be asked to offer solutions. Her philosophy is best summed up in this quote from the September 1987 issue of “Women’s Own” magazine, in which she was interviewed:
“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.’
This long-winded justification can be reduced to a simple motto: Stop complaining and get to work. The interesting thing about this movie is that, the more she experiences this flood of random memories, the more she realizes that she’s at an advanced age and in need of assistance. No more pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, not when you continue to have conversations with your dead husband for nearly a decade. I have no way of knowing how accurately these scenes represent the current state of Thatcher’s condition, but to be perfectly honest, accuracy was not foremost on my mind. What The Iron Lady did for me had nothing to do with history or politics; it had everything to do with examining a character in a way I found both intriguing and compelling. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was made possible thanks to the extraordinary talents of Meryl Streep.
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The Weinstein Co.