The Iron Lady is an interesting example of the limits of movie biography and the manner in which contemporary political and social trends leak into motion picture storytelling.
Starring the incomparable Meryl Streep, whose unique talent allows her to create and mimic the persona of the most challenging of female characters plucked from real life or fiction, The Iron Lady purports to tell the intimate story of Margaret Thatcher, one of the most powerful British prime ministers of recent vintage.
The movie, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is a valiant attempt to go beyond the mask of Mrs. Thatcherâ€™s public image and portray the real person that lurks inside what we cynics often refer to as the human contrivance. Mrs. Thatcher, as we know from recent history, was a strong, articulate and stubborn woman who climbed the fortress of the male dominated British political system and become one of the most powerful Tory Prime Ministers in recent history.
The problem confronted by the filmmakers was how to portray a woman whose singleness of purpose and political obsessions were at war with her domestic instincts as wife and mother, the ultimate dilemma faced by the modern woman competing on what was once the entrenched turf of men.
With a female director, a female screenwriter and a strong-minded female actress, the movie they have fashioned opens on a note of steep decline with Mrs. Thatcher. She is revealed as a frail figure, afflicted with senility purchasing a grocery item illustrating her still determined domestic side. We next see her in her retirement digs with her husband, played by the wonderful Jim Broadbent. We are not certain if the husband is actually alive or existing only in the memory of Mrs. Thatcher.
I have a sense that the filmmakers, in many story conferences, determined that the best way to show Mrs. Thatcherâ€™s domestic side was to begin her story at the end of her career when she was bereft, mentally feeble and powerless, forced to endure the domesticity of home and hearth and the companionship of her husband and adult daughter as her only lifetime option.
Sprinkled throughout, the contrived flashbacks show us a woman who has put her career above the loving care of her children and the considerations of her supportive husband, but who seems to dwell on the memories of family life with far more emotion than she regards her career highlights. Oddly, there is less of the latter in the movie, which might have resulted in widening its popularity.
The filmmakers strive to show the force of her ambition competing with the obvious needs of her children and her husband. We see her driving away from her home to attend her first parliamentary session while her children chase after the car. It is a subtle illustration of separation without hysterics, but it doesnâ€™t take a genius to figure out how conflicted the movie makers were in creating that scene.
Her career as a politician is portrayed in the usual clichÃ©d pattern of a woman against the odds, put down by her male colleagues, storming the ramparts of male domination with a stiff upper lip, and once on top of the heap showing more gumption and toughness than her male colleagues, who are portrayed as less forthright and determined to uphold the honor of what remains of the once all-powerful British empire.
There are the usual female independence manifestos necessary for this period piece. The young Margaret is depicted professing her love for her intended husband, but setting up the rules for their future. No domesticity for her, leaving her free to pursue a life of public service, to which the intended husband agrees.
Then there are scenes of domestic bliss at the beach when Margaret replays old movies of the early life when her two children were small, mugging in front of the camera to show camaraderie and her â€œrealâ€ feelings of motherhood, which soon must yield to political ambition.
Obviously, we are manipulated to root for her as she climbs the ladder to prime minister while the filmmakers do their best to illustrate the roles she must sacrifice as mother and wife, and as she ages and retires complete with broad hints of personal remorse.
There are lots of flashbacks and returns to the plight of her mental decline, the gaps in memory, the confusion in her mind about her husbandâ€™s death, the passing mention that her son has gone off to South Africa to be followed, apparently temporarily, by her husband. Frankly, it is hard to nail down the facts of her life and her rise to political power from this movie, which clearly concentrates on the emotional aspect of Thatcherâ€™s life and less on the details of her career.
Bear in mind that I am over-analyzing this movie, having lived through her time in the political limelight. There is no question that Mrs. Thatcher was a dominant and colorful figure in her prime, and there are many who can cite her accomplishments and demerits. She was clearly single-minded, often ruthless, unforgiving and determined, traits that are illustrated in the movie like boxes to be checked.
While the movie has, to my mind, numerous flaws as a film biography of a powerful political figure, I would recommend it as an interesting and sincere attempt to portray the emotional life of a legendary female politician, and an opportunity to observe an actress of extraordinary talent who makes you believe that she is the actual, real-life embodiment of the woman she has chosen to impersonate.
Indeed, the career of this former female prime minister can count as a great step forward for the gender, although it was not the first time the Brits were subject to female rule. Remember Elizabeth the First, the equally strong willed sovereign queen who cemented her dictatorial rule by executing her cousin once removed, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had also claimed the throne.
And then there is Angela Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe today. Nevertheless, politics and gender aside, I believe there is an intelligence at work in the creation of this film that makes its viewing a worthwhile experience despite its flawed presentation.