The Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady, opened Friday in theaters across the country and here in Iowa. It is a depressing film told through the lens of dementia and flashbacks about an amazing woman who had a profound effect on Britain and the course of world politics in the twentieth century.
The fact that it is depressing does not make it a bad movie. It is not a bad movie as far as movie making goes. But from a storytelling point of view, the film glosses over details of both Thatcher’s life and modern British history, leaving the viewer with a patchwork of vignettes about both.
The film does several things well. It paints a deep love story between the former prime minster and her husband, Dennis. The couple was married for 52 years before his death in 2003. The attention to costuming, make up and period details is impeccable. Meryl Streep’s performance of Thatcher as both Prime Minster and as an elderly woman affected by the onset of Alzheimer’s are what theater goers expect of the actress who has received 16 Academy Award nominations and taken the Oscar home twice. The voice and facial expressions are spot on, the costuming impeccable, and the make-up of turning Streep into an aging octogenarian is utterly convincing.
Alexandra Roach, who portrays the young Thatcher from her teen years to her early 30s, plays Thatcher as a dreamy ideologue who gazed upon conservative politicians the way teens idolize rock stars. The only scene or reference to how Thatcher was shaped by World War II shows her huddled with her family under a table in the basement during a bombing raid when she he bravely runs upstairs to her father’s grocery store to cover the butter with the glass cloche to make sure that business can go on as usual tomorrow.
Yes Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter who went to Oxford. The film tells us that much, but it slides over many details that put Thatcher’s life in context. Politics was a part of family life. Her father was mayor of Grantham, a town just south of London. She attended Oxford during the war years and was graduated in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She worked as a research chemist before marrying a wealthy businessman in 1951. Thatcher was an early feminist who wanted more from life than to “wash tea cups.” Two years after marrying, she became a barrister specializing in taxation. That same year she also gave birth to twins. When her children were 6-years old, she was elected a Member of Parliament serving for 11 years before being appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science. In 1975 she was elected Leader of the Opposition of the House of Commons before becoming Prime Minister in 1979.
During her 11 year tenure as Prime Minister she took an ailing economy crippled by high unemployment and through conservative principles of small government and free-enterprise realized a revitalized Britain. She oversaw the reorganization of trade unions and the privatization of state-owned industries and utilities, dealing with strikes and unrest.
When Argentina seized the Falkland Islands and South Georgia in the South Atlantic Ocean during the spring of 1982, Thatcher engaged the Argentinean military in war bringing to bear the full weight of the British naval, ground and air forces to regain control of the territories in 72 days. One scene shows Thatcher discussing Britain’s resolve to recapture the Falklands with U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig. He questions why Britain would care about islands thousands of miles away and Thatcher firmly likened the situation to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor before steely offering Haig some tea, “Black or white?”
Thatcher also dealt with conflict in Northern Ireland. The film shows the IRA bombing of a hotel in Brighton where Thatcher and her husband were staying but doesn’t put the event into context. Nor does the film spend much time with Thatcher’s relationship with Ronald Reagan, her political soul mate, and her support of a policy of deterrence over détente in regards to relations with the Soviets. She also recognized that a new chapter of history could be written in East-West relations with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but the film doesn’t go into this other than to show a snippet of news film of the Berlin Wall being knocked down.
Rather than coming away with a sense of Margaret Thatcher’s 33-year political career, I left the theater thinking I had seen a movie about a woman with dementia whose memories of her life faded in and out as she hallucinated conversations with her deceased husband about past events. Margaret Thatcher is now 86 years old. She has retired from public life after a series of strokes and declining health. Her legacy deserves better than this film.