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Monday, January 16, 2012

The Iron Lady

Sometimes a film is worth seeing just to watch an excellent actor capture an interesting character. This applies to Meryl Streep playing Julia Child in Julie and Julia and Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. I write this review of the The Iron Lady a day after seeing it and watching Streep accept a Golden Globe for her role in it. Prior to seeing the film, I had heard critics say that the film itself pales in comparison with Streep’s performance. I concur, though whereas the critics complain of the extent of disjunction between Thatcher as the prime minister and Thatcher as an old woman in dementia, I want to point to the sheer extent of “back and forth” between the two. Typically, there would be a snippet of Thatcher as prime minister, than back to the old woman in the dark, then back again to the past. A viewer could get whiplash. I would have preferred to begin at the beginning—with Thatcher’s start in politics—and work up to the dementia (giving the old Thatcher much, much less air time). Perhaps the “linear chronological” approach was presumed too straight-forward, or boring, by the screenwriter or director. However, any story naturally has a beginning, middle and an end, and too much jumping around can eclipse the natural progression.

A more serious problem may exist, moreover, should the viewer wonder what the conflict in the story is. In other words, what or who is the antagonist? Sadly, if it is dementia itself, there is little suspense in the outcome. Perhaps the only suspense in that regard what whether she would get rid of her dead husband, Dennis. Unfortunately, that character had more screen time dead than alive. If the main conflict is Thatcher’s political support while in office, that too could hold little drama. Likewise, it is difficult to view a “war” over a few islands off Argentina as significant to justify Thatcher’s urging her fellow Brits that it is a day to feel proud to be British. Perhaps the tension between her ambition and household could have had potential had it been developed beyond a breakfast scene, though it is doubtful that the antagonist in Dennis could have given that conflict enough strength. Of course, if watching Streep inhabit Thatcher is the viewer’s aim, then perhaps drama is of secondary importance. Still, a nice story would have been a nice cherry on the sundae.

Furthermore, I contend the screenwriter failed to capitalize on some rather obvious opportunities to draw viewers into the story. Most notably, both Queen Elizabeth and President Reagan were alluded to, yet without any parts in the narrative (i.e., screen time beyond a bizarre brief dance in Reagan’s case). What, for instance, if Helen Mirren had reprised her role as Elizabeth for a few scenes with the Iron Lady? Might there have been any drama there? I suspect so. What did the Queen think of the Thatcher herself, her conservatism in the recession, and the Falklands War? Did the Queen play any indirect or subtle role in Thatcher’s fall from power? Concerning Reagan, what if we could have seen a bit of what might have been the real relationship between him and Thatcher? Might the screenwriter have gone native, leaving California for Britain? For that matter, what about showing Thatcher at Reagan’s funeral? These were major opportunities strangely lost in favor of a brief shot of the palace as Thatcher was becoming Prime Minister and of a brief dance with Reagan (which was strange in the montage). At the very least, the screenwriter missed a major opportunity by failing to capitalize on the Queen’s jubilee and irritate progressives by delving into two conservative political soulmates doing more than dancing across the screen.

Concerning Steep’s Thatcher, it is difficult to be critical. Besides the uncomfortable “leap” from the young Margaret Roberts and Thatcher as a new member of parliament, Streep herself may put too much stress on certain words in mimicking Thatcher’s sentences. The emphasis itself reminded me a bit of Streep’s Julia Child. To be sure, both characters are strong women, which undoubtedly drew Streep to the two roles. Whereas Streep probably found little not to like in Julia, the conservative politics of Thatcher must have been an obstacle. Yet even here, Streep’s maturity can be seen. “It was interesting to me to look at the human being behind the headlines; to imagine what it's like to a live a life so huge, controversial, and groundbreaking in the winter of that life, and to have sort of a compassionate view for someone with whom I disagree." If only more prime ministers had that sort of compassion!

Ironically, at least as depicted in the film, Margaret Thatcher did not have much compassion for even her own partisans—though they were voicing compassion for the unemployed. As a viewer enthralled by Streep’s acting ability, I found it difficult to care about the protagonist—the lack of drama exacerbating this problem. Perhaps Streep’s acting could be criticized in the end for not having sufficiently communicated her compassionate view of someone with whom she disagrees. In the ending scene itself, it is difficult to feel anything for the old woman wandering in her hallway, regardless of her past politics. The film’s true antagonist may be meaninglessness, or death itself, and I’m not sure the film survives it. Furthermore, I don’t think we find a protagonist doing more than flirt with the inevitable.  How much drama can there be in facing certainty? To be sure, we all flirt with the fact that each of us will die—for all the significance each of us thinks is in our daily battles, we barely acknowledge that one day we ourselves won’t exist and that in a few generations (or centuries for some) we will be forgotten. This is part of the human condition that screenwriters attempt to capture. Even so, perhaps the dementia in The Iron Lady is more of a taste of reality than the viewers would care to tolerate, least of all for entertainment!


Huffington Post, “’The Iron Lady’ Star Meryl Streep Talks Playing Margaret Thatcher, Losing Her Glasses,” January 16, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/16/meryl-streep-iron-lady_n_1208629.html