‘The Iron Lady:’ Wonderfully, Conservatively Subversive

Conservatives have nothing to fear from the controversial and wonderfully subversive Margaret Thatcher biopic, “The Iron Lady.” Because the creators, whatever their personal political beliefs, had the artistic integrity to let Thatcher be Thatcher, the film becomes a rousing call to those who believe that “those who can do, must get up and DO.”

The film opens today in New York and Los Angeles, a common practice to make end of year films eligible for the Oscar race, and expands nationwide on January 13. Meryl Streep plays Thatcher, the powerful former leader of Britain who rose from humble roots to lead her country through economic turmoil, Irish Republican Army terrorism, military engagements, and the end of the Cold War.

The controversy stems from the framework of the film, which depicts Thatcher as a befuddled elderly woman recalling the important events of her life between hallucinatory chats with her deceased husband (Jim Broadbent) and pestering of her living daughter (Olivia Colman). As a portrayal of the onset of dementia, it is brilliant, with Streep fearlessly emitting guttural sounds and half spoken words as emotions chase each other across her face. Confusion transforms into amusement; Annoyance, determination, exasperation all flit through her eyes and lips as fast as cloud shadows on a hillside on a summer’s day.

Conservatives have worried that this depiction of a powerful woman wrestling with age casts aspersions on her career and beliefs, as if succumbing to age invalidates what came before. I disagree. Instead, it adds pathos as the former most powerful woman in the world comes to require what can only be described as babysitters. It also does something more:  it strips away the details and shows the iron core of Margaret Thatcher.

Even in her confusion, she is all about principle.

At the sight of an Al-Qaeda bombing on television, she stands and declares that condolences must be sent to the victims and England must never negotiate with terrorists. Her muddled brain may momentarily think she still holds the highest office in the land, but – and this is key – her reaction is absolutely correct.

Again and again, the elderly Thatcher reflects the beliefs and determination that made her great despite her failing grasp on current details.

Thatcher inherited her iron core from her father, a grocer who believed, correctly, that the determination of small business and everyday Englishmen would win the day through the horrors of World War II. Freedom means, he taught, that people must be free to work hard and become prosperous, not through hand-outs, but through their own hardiness.

Thatcher translated this obstinacy into every facet of her being. Unions striking and causing garbage to fill the streets of London? Don’t give into their demands. IRA bombing take the life of a friend? Next day, business as usual. Argentina junta invade English territory in the Falklands? Send the might of the British navy to make them rue the day.

The best moment comes when her colleagues urge her to ease back on government cuts –Sound familiar?- that are draining the government coffers and hobbling England’s economy. They feel the cuts are too drastic, that the country is not ready for them. She disagrees. “The medicine is painful,” she tells them, “But the patient needs it to survive. Shall we withhold it?”

We could use a little Margaret Thatcher right about now.

This relentless will was Thatcher’s great strength, but like many leaders before her, her strength became her downfall. The movie depicts accurately how her inability to work with even her colleagues ultimately cost her the job of Prime Minister. It also doesn’t shy away from showing the toll her political ambition took on her family. These are matters of record and, while we may quibble about the details, there is no sense in whitewashing history or reducing a complex figure to a bumpersticker slogan.

The central conflict in the film stems from Thatcher’s struggle to come to terms with her marriage, hence those hallucinatory chats with a dead man. While it’s well done and gripping, there is too much of it. The movie wastes too many valuable minutes on Maggie and Denis, minutes that could have been better spent on history. The Cold War, particularly, is mentioned only in passing. Rated PG-13, the film has some historic footage of violent riots and one brief and totally unnecessary shot of uncovered breasts. There is no sexuality and only a bit of language.

Even with the minor weakness of the film, it is hard to see the tremendously talented Streep completely committed to being Thatcher and not be roused. The Iron Lady’s principles come through loud and clear.

They stand the test of time, even if their proponent has begun to go the way of all flesh.

“The Iron Lady” ranked fourth on our list of the best films of 2011. Check out the rest of the list here.

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • charder209

    Sounds like I need to see it! Thanks for your always-insightful reviews.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks for the kind words. I recommend seeing it.

  • Anonymous

    I saw the trailer and thought it looked like a hit piece. Does Streep think she’s a loony?

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Some people see it as a hit piece, but I disagree. I think they respect Thatcher and let her speak for herself. Actually, most of the historical sequences are notably straight, not really presented from one side or another. I think that’s what makes it subversive. Some people will see it as a hit piece, but I think Thatcher shines through enough that it becomes a rallying cry.

  • Sean

    I went to see it tonight and thought it was ok, but really wished they had focused more on her early life and her time in high office. The main issue I have with the movie is that in the few moments where they start to focus on this, they quickly cut back to her current troubles and never let her story truly unfold. That’s a real shame because in those few moments they give us, the picture really soars.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Couldn’t agree more, Sean. Thanks for the comment.

  • Lily

    Just saw the movie and I don’t mind the focus on the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and her husband Denis. I remember in my teenage years, everytime I see Denis walking behind her during times of glory and trouble… I always wondered what he would have thought, what would he have said to his wife. I was always wondering how he could have born the weight of being married to such an ambitous woman. I am not sure that a man of our modern times would have stayed married to such a woman. Hat off to Denis for his love for Margaret and his love for change and also hat off to Margaret and her principles… even though it must have been hard for the kids.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks Lily. I agree. I kind of liked the relationship. Focusing on her infirmities and her marriage humanizes her. Otherwise, the movie would be a big rah rah or hit piece. I think they found a way to make a good movie about a controversial person without taking sides. I would have liked them to take sides a little more, not completely, but a bit more. Still, it’s a tricky thing to do. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love the movie. Seen it three times and was still interested, which is a lot more than I can say for most films.


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