- Vancouver, British Columbia - Margaret Thatcher's place in history has been cemented to some extent with the only debate being between her detractors and her followers as to whether her policies were the best ones for Great Britain, during her reign as the first woman prime minister, between 1979-1990. Their results cannot be disputed, since in effect she saved the British economy, but whether there was a way in which the same results might have been achieved without her painful remedies remains a point of contention. As polarizing as a figure as former American President George W. Bush, she remains as an interesting figure in history, which is why a cinematic examination of her life, The Iron Lady, does not seem misplaced, though the manner in which this one was made appears to be as polarizing as the woman, who the Soviets disparagingly referred to as "The Iron Lady."
The Iron Lady examines the life of none other than former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), though it begins with a frail, aged Thatcher, who is clearly in her twilight years. The narrative of the film is a little unusual, in that, it revolves around Thatcher's own ill health, reportedly suffering from dementia. Flashbacks are elicited of her life, beginning from her youth, then to her rise to power, and eventually to her current ill state. Along for the journey is her previously deceased husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), who appears in hallucinations through the film, as Thatcher attempts to get a hold of the life that is slipping through her fingers.
What stands out the most in The Iron Lady is the performance of Meryl Streep, which should come as no surprise, as Streep can always be counted on for a powerful performance. Her wisdom in selecting roles is unmatched by her peers, both male and female, and every year, it is no surprise that she is always among the contenders for yet another Oscar, having been nominated sixteen times now and winning twice. When one watches Streep at work in The Iron Lady, one forgets that we are watching Meryl Streep, because it looks and feels like an actual person living their life on the screen. Jim Broadbent is a very capable and effective actor, but next to Streep's performance in The Iron Lady, it is hard to not think less of his own work, since Streep's is so fascinating.
As for the narrative itself though, it doesn't match Streep's performance. It often lacked direction, which resulted in a lack of clarity in determining what the film was really trying to accomplish. At times, it felt like it was interested in looking at the difficulties experienced by women aspiring for a career in public service, while the potential was also there to discuss in more detail the challenges faced by many women today with balancing a career with being a mother. Furthermore, it could be confused for being a look at the experience of growing old and losing touch with the world around one's self. I believe there should be more films examining the challenge of aging gracefully and accepting old age, since this is something that is very rarely discussed in society, though I'm not sure that such a film would sell. Nevertheless, choosing to focus on the challenges facing women in politics would've been a sufficient angle to take, but since the filmmakers struggled to choose one over the other, it didn't translate into a strong film.
In many ways, it is amazing that a film about Margaret Thatcher was made in the first place. Thatcher was one of the most divisive figures in British politics for some time, in large part, because of her controversial policies, such as breaking the will of the trade unions, slashing public expenditures, and privatizing much of the government-owned industries. Hollywood would seem to have little to praise about Thatcher, except for the fact that she was a woman prime minister, which in itself is a fascinating element to examine. But in The Iron Lady, we're not presented with a sufficient enough basis for understanding what made Thatcher believe what she did. We're shown how committed Thatcher is to doing the right thing according to her beliefs, even if it isn't popular. She didn't believe in appealing to the masses, but instead choose to operate from a conviction of doing what was best for the country. Sadly, the small snippets of Thatcher's life we're given were not enough to get a proper understanding of what motivated her to do, especially considering that they resulted in some of the most fierce protests and riots in recent British history. Her conflict with the IRA is shown too sparingly, when in reality, this had the potential to reveal much more about her character. Ultimately, an opportunity was lost in this film.
Thatcher's politics are among her most intriguing aspects, especially today when much of the world finds itself in a similar economic situation as she did when she first took the office of the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Among her most pointed comments in the film are when she is pressured from her cabinet that she must yield to the demands of her critics, since the country is suffering from a recession that has induced massive unemployment. She responds that her policy choices are the necessarily painful medicine to cure the disease that is slowly killing Britain, and then declares that it would be asinine to suggest withholding the medicine from the ill patient because it is a painful treatment. Her declaration that she will not preside over the slow decline of her proud nation, but instead take the necessary, albeit painful steps to save it from itself, is powerful, but the film doesn't build from this.
The film's transition from Thatcher's success in turning around the British economy and standard of living to her later fall in popularity is also too abrupt, while also not providing us as the audience enough to understand why she has fallen from the masses' graces. Something about a poll tax is briefly touched upon, but it is merely done in passing detail. It results in Thatcher merely looking like a self-righteous bully, who never really was in touch with the people or with her cabinet. It is a poor handling of the film's lead character, which is shocking, considering the film is entirely about Thatcher. I believe that the filmmakers were well-intentioned, but in the end, this was a film that couldn't decide what it wanted to be or say, or if they did decide, they failed to communicate that well enough to its audience.
The Iron Lady is a film that would've been a disaster had it not been for the involvement of Meryl Streep, who saves this film from being unfortunate. She brings to life a character that is intriguing and thought-provoking, but the unfortunate thing is that our interest is peaked by her, though we're not given an adequate payoff for our emotional investment in the film's Margaret Thatcher. I do not know if I've ever seen a film before that made me feel so strongly afterward that I wished and longed that someone else had made it. Typically this might be the case for fan boys of comic book movie adaptations, but one gets the sense that there is much material to discuss around the life of Margaret Thatcher. Though I grew up as a young child in Thatcher's latter years in office, I've always had a certain respect and curiosity about her. Sadly, this film does not satisfy my interest in the woman who was called The Iron Lady. Neither does it create a thorough enough portrait of her that makes me respect her more. There was a great opportunity here for something special as a film, but we're left with only being impressed with Streep's performance, while the rest of the film is rather lacking.
Rating: 3/5 Sour Grapes