Film Review: The Iron Lady
Here’s my first suggestion to anyone who wants to make a political biopic: it’s best to not do it if you’re afraid of politics. If your political figure is the first female Prime Minister in Britain’s history, you might not want to be afraid of gender issues either. My greatest piece of advice, however, would be this: if you want to make a film that avoids controversy, perhaps it shouldn’t be about Margaret Thatcher.
Stripped of politics, lacking in history, barely touching on gender or character growth, The Iron Lady is really about an old woman in a nice apartment who suffers from dementia. This was a controversial decision in itself, yes, but the overwhelming message of the film – it’s terrible to grow old – is much easier to express than one about politics in the 80s. Yes the writer, Abi Morgan, uses dementia as a reason for Thatcher to look back on her life, but all we get is a collage of dinner parties, quotable speeches, riots and the odd bomb. There is no context, there is no story, even Thatcher’s character gets lost in it all. To really have a story, the writer would have to ask her viewers to have an opinion, and opinions are divisive. In order to offend no one, the writer and director have thrown out couple of dramatic scenes about a powerful woman who has lost it in her old age. Then they left it to Meryl Streep to act the shit out of them.
And she does- she acts the shit out of them. It’s mesmerizing to watch, really, but we all know that Meryl Streep is talented. Meryl Streep’s is the greatest actor of a generation, her legacy is set in stone. But who is Margaret Thatcher? I get the feeling that no working on this movie really cares.
When we’re introduced to old Maggie, she is buying milk in a noisy corner store and getting lost on the way home. But then through a flash back, we learn that she wasn’t always a timid old woman, she was once a timid young girl. Yes – young Maggie, despite the fact that she saves the butter in her father, Ser Jorah Mormont’s shop during the blitz, and, ya know, becomes a hard-ballin’ PM, actually just begins as a stuttering young girl who’s extremely embarrassed when the other school girls laugh at her. Of course, this makes room for character development yes? Well… not really. Young Maggie says a lot of the same shit old Maggie says, except with frightened Bunny eyes. We’re not sure why she wants to go into politics (although we do get the sense that her dad is in politics and that it’s just, part of her life I guess), or why the conservatives take a chance on a 24 year old woman in the first place, but after she looses her first election and her future husband, Viserys Targaryen – I mean Dennis of course (seriously though, I’m pretty sure the casting director wanted to just hire the whole Game of Thrones cast and call it a day) proposes to her, politics is something she’s decided she’s going to do. They don’t include anything about her career in between the election in 1950 that she looses, and the one in 1958 she wins (she was a lawyer, BTW and Dennis, that lovable nerd, payed for her to go to law school) but dementia Maggie does eventually remember getting into the House of Commons and feeling left out of the backrooms of power because woman aren’t generally invited into brandy and cigar rooms. It’s a very interesting topic that never really gets explored again, until she is the Cabinet. How does she get into the Cabinet if she is an outsider? Who the fuck knows.
The best moment comes when she is making a speech as Minister of Education and her opponents tell her to stop screeching. As a woman who has had to raise my voice on occasion I was really cut up for old Maggie when someone told her to “calm down”. Biology has given women a raw deal when it comes to raising our voices. It’s really the only moment in the movie where I feel as though Thatcher is being held back because of her sex. Of course, any discussion of sexual politics would have been a bit more meaningful if the political men in this movie didn’t all blend into a one big balding hoard.
So then there are the politics, here presented as a laundry list of 1980s trivia. The IRA is mentioned, the Unions are discussed, the Cold war is alluded to. Their approach to the controversial Thatcher agenda to have her spew the odd catch phrase here and there, but never really go into the issues. We just see a lot of riot footage. I do think that Abi Morgan could have attempted to touch on the issues with an even hand, perhaps explaining how out of control union leaders had become at the time, while portraying the reality of the very widespread suffering during the standoff, but they didn’t. The writer really wasn’t that interested in politics, so she gets rid of them as quickly as she can. Here, Thatcher’s economic policies, the center of her legacy, get boiled down into “My father was a shopkeeper! I know the price of milk!” her international policies are “we will stand on principal” (what principal? WHAT?) her moment of hubris is prompted by a spelling mistake.
The wide brushstrokes and vast oversimplifications do an injustice to everyone because they make Thatcher’s job look easy. They make her look like an interesting woman on a ride through history, not someone who deeply affected that history. She did affect history, her policies continue to affect history which is why everyone has an opinion on her. When you take away what makes her controversial, you also take away what makes her interesting. Then there are the moments when the facts are just wrong. They compare the Faulkland islands invasion to Pearl Harbour, they have shots of her dancing with Nelson Mandela. If I know one thing about Thatcher, it’s that the bitch HATED Mandela. This political content, however, only lasts about 15 minutes put together though. The writers would hate to distract you from all that dementia.
I will admit that I have not really been looking forward to this movie. I really don’t like biopics, and I really don’t like biopics about people who are still alive. When I wrote about the movie when it was in production, I was strongly against the dementia aspect. I felt it wasn’t fair to have a movie entitled “Iron Lady” but show someone soft and broken. I take that back. The dementia aspect was fine. If this movie was just about an older, more powerful woman trying to defeat the demons of old age and hold onto herself, it would have been a lot better. This whole “Margret Thatcher’ business just muddled that movie up.