Normally I don’t do movie reviews since the only first-run movies I typically see are kid movies. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But I was treated to an advance screening of The Iron Lady, which opened yesterday in selected theaters in LA and New York to qualify Meryl Streep for her inevitable and mostly deserved Oscar for best actress. As all of the other early reviews say, she is remarkable in the role—no one could have played Thatcher better, though in one or two places a careful (or picky) ear will note a slight American tinge in a word or two.
The film as a whole, however, is a disappointment, though in an odd way I think the film will backfire on the vaguely liberal intent of its makers. (More on this point in a moment.)
The movie has several serious flaws. First, it is told through the device of flashbacks by the contemporary Thatcher who apparently suffers intermittent dementia, carrying on conversations with her imaginary late husband, Denis. Such an approach, while grossly insensitive to the often still very alert Lady Thatcher, could have worked well as an artistic device and a departure from the biopics that often fail in the attempt to compress an entire chronological story into an hour and 45 minutes or so. But the technique is completely out of balance here. The depiction of Thatcher’s current state occupies probably two-thirds of the movie, giving short shrift to the prime of her political career.
Second, the director and/or film editor jumble the timeline, sometimes offering flashbacks inside of flashbacks Inception-like, jumping back and forth with abandon, with the result that few of the episodes of Thatcher’s youth, rise to power, or time at 10 Downing Street are very well developed. In a couple of cases the episodes they chose to dramatize are slightly mis-told or badly truncated, though the Falkland Islands scenes are generally well drawn (especially Thatcher’s dressing down of Al Haig—worth the price of admission). The scene of her last days as prime minister rambling incoherently in Cabinet is wholly imaginary and grossly inaccurate. (The film ought to have included at least some portrayal of her final speech in the House of Commons—a tour de force by all reckonings.) And they left out a lot of real events that could have been great drama.
Hollywood is generally poor at telling real political stories or doing biopics of political or military figures. Partly this is a failure of imagination. All too often they come across flat; think of Gregory Peck in the completely forgettable MacArthur, The Rebel General, or just about any depiction of Lincoln, FDR, or Kennedy. So I can have some sympathy for filmmakers who want to try a different approach to a political figure. There were rumors, however, that Streep, a typical Hollywood lefty, didn’t want to play the role if the picture was positive about Thatcher. Streep has been careful in her public statements, but this comment to Newsweek rather gives it away: “And I think that it is a discomfort with, and a confusion about, women in leadership roles. For feminists it’s a betrayal because she doesn’t do the right thing, and so you hate her more than you’d hate a man who stood for the same things.” Keep in mind that back in the 1980s, feminists used to call Thatcher and Jeane Kirkpatrick “female impersonators.” Charming bunch, those 80s feminists.
So were the writer and director trying to offer a more subtle attack on Thatcher by limiting some of the factors that would make her seem more heroic? If so they will likely have failed. Her greatness is impossible to suppress, even in this treatment.
In this respect the film is comparable to one of the most successful biopics ever: Patton. Rumor and legend have long held that France Ford Coppola wanted the film to convey an antiwar message, or make out Patton as a metaphor of the supposed bloodlust of the American military mindset then said to be rampaging in Vietnam. I doubt this is true, though one can imagine Coppola and others associated with the film embracing this cover story with their liberal friends in Hollywood at the height of anti-Vietnam War sentiment. However ambiguous the intent may have been, George C. Scott’s portrayal was a triumph for American patriotism and martial virtue. Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher, even with some of the deliberate ambiguities and negative suggestions the screenplay contains, is going to cause many a moviegoer to say, “We could use someone exactly like her today.”