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The Iron Lady

January 29, 2012
The Iron Lady

It may be hard to remember with the current GOP prostrating themselves to his memory, but Ronald Reagan was a product of his time rather than the other way around. Indeed, slightly before we elected our conservative saint, the United Kingdom selected Margaret Thatcher as their first female prime minister. And she was every bit as conservative as Reagan, and every bit as divisive. If there’s a recent historical figure about whom one must take a strong opinion, Thatcher would probably be it. So when the question comes, whether her career and legacy are to be adored or reviled, it’s a bit of a shock for The Iron Lady to come back with a resounding “meh.”

I mean no disrespect at all to Meryl Streep, who plays Thatcher as brilliantly as any of her other roles; nor to Alexandra Roach, who plays the younger Thatcher, before her political career took off; nor to Jim Broadbent and Harry Lloyd, who play the Old and young Denis Thatcher, respectively. Streep melts into Thatcher so smoothly that it would be possible to think we’re watching old news footage of the prime minister’s speeches, if it weren’t for the little leftover bit of Julia Child that’s still floating around in her voice.

The film plays out in flashbacks from the end of Thatcher’s life, addled by a touch of unspecified senility. Conservatives have been outraged at what they see as a blatant attempt at humiliation, but is that really the case? Maybe the point is that Thatcher is and was human and only ever did what she honestly thought was best with imperfect information, so she can’t be demonized. I really can’t tell you from the film itself what the point was.

If Thatcher is looking back, is she supposed to be looking back with regret or with vindication? I can’t tell you from the film itself what the point was.

And in the dramatized history itself, the same pattern plays out. Did she go to war in the Falklands in a principled stand for the sake of the British holdings and subjects there, or was it more the sheer, bloody-minded tenacity of a Grantham shopkeeper’s daughter? Again, I can’t tell you from the film itself what the point was.

Over and over again the film presents us with a rorschach inkblot, reflecting back at us what we already think about Margaret Thatcher than giving us a new take on the controversial figure. I grant it takes a certain equanimity on the part of director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan to strike this balance, but is it a balance that should be struck?

I’m not even saying that one side is right or wrong — though I do have my own beliefs, of course — nor even that Lloyd and Morgan should say that one side is right or wrong. One of the more common mistakes in English usage is to think ambivalence means having a wishy-washy, neutral position rather than holding two strong, contradictory opinions. If you’re going to make a movie about the “Iron Lady”, you need a lot less of the former and a lot more of the latter than we see here.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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