Monday, January 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep stars as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with Jim Broadbent as her husband Denis and Olivia Colman as her devoted if much less ambitious daughter Carol (I was really happy that this role went to Colman, who is great as Sophie Chapman in the existential British sitcom “Peep Show,” and she also appeared in an episode of “The Office (U.K.)” as a reporter who interviews and photographs a just-fired David Brent.) The film is structured as a day in the life of the present-day Thatcher as she battles the onset of a dementia that features hallucinations of her now-dead husband that lead into flashbacks into her own life story. By the end of the movie she finally breaks through to reality again and packs up all of his clothes for donation to Oxfam.

Thatcher is portrayed as someone who just never, ever gets discouraged and who has zero patience for those who do. No wonder: she is always the lone woman in a roomful of skeptical men and learns from an early age that she has to fight hard for their respect. She is shown adoring her grocer father, who was active in Conservative Party politics in their constituency of Grantham and who strongly encouraged his daughter’s political instincts. Her mother is portrayed as a frightened non-entity. The teenaged Margaret Roberts is laughed at by the other girls because she has to work in her dad’s shop and because she is so serious. When she meets husband-to-be Denis Thatcher at a gathering of local Conservative bigwigs he is attracted to her because she acts like it never occurs to her that she cannot or should not hold her own talking politics with the men. The film shows Denis getting frustrated with her ambition only once; otherwise he is a typical political spouse: supportive, encouraging, a confidant, and close adviser. (Whether he ever has a job of his own, and if so, what it is, is left out of the story completely.) Their relationship is shown to be one of mutual respect and tenderness.

Another important male booster in Thatcher’s life is a fellow Conservative MP in the party leadership who convinces her to run for party leader and gets her to change her style a bit in ways that are apparently successful. After launching Thatcher’s rise but before she becomes Prime Minister he is killed by an IRA car bomb, which provides some context for her no-compromise-with-terrorists-or-Argentinian-juntas resolve. (Nice detail: in a private meeting with her advisers about the Falklands she pronounces “junta” with a hard j; I’m not sure if that was a typical British lack of effort with foreign words, ignorance on Thatcher’s part (very unlikely), or simply her way of indicating disdain.)

Her political views are covered a bit, but not extensively. The Conservative program is portrayed in the best possible light: Hard work should pay off for the yeoman shopkeeper. Of course she can make that theme work because that was in fact her background, and she does chafe against the more high-born men of the Conservative Party. But the harsh austerity policies she enacted after she became Prime Minister in 1979 aren’t really covered in great depth. The Labour side of things is represented via chaotic documentary footage of the Brixton riots and the raging from the Opposition in the Commons, which of course just looks like a roomful of angry men yelling at a woman.

Thatcher is never shown to waver and is always the most forceful and in-command person in the room. The male courtiers surrounding her are often shown to be callow and weak, too ready to compromise. There is a key scene during the most intense part of the Falklands War where she has to decide whether or not to sink an Argentine cruiser. The military men say yes, the political men say no. She takes a moment, sets her jaw, and firmly says, “Sink it.”

I suppose the movie qualifies as a hagiography because Thatcher is really never shown to make a public misstep of any kind. In 1990 she is deposed by her own lieutenants. The film posits that this is because in a post-Cold-War world, her imperious management style has run its course and begins to border on the abusive.

“The Iron Lady” is by no means an historical document, but it is a compelling more-or-less true story of a woman who overcomes sexism to rise to perhaps the third most powerful office in the world, an office she uses to utterly transform the British welfare state and, along the way, authoritatively direct a relatively splendid little war. It is also an affecting love story and a sensitive portrayal of the toll that aging takes on even the most competent person. A good video rental; not at all necessary to see it on the big screen.

1 comment:

Lord John Whorfin said...

So funny, I'm listening to a lecture series on Victorian England, given by a Brit and he pronounced "junta" the same way, too. I was so surprised I looked it up. I thought it must be an old cognate since it's been in the English language since the 1600's. Apparently, though, it was borrowed from Spanish then, but quickly Anglicized. My grandmother's old dictionary actually has the Anglicized pronunciation as preferred, but newer American dictionaries have the Spanish pronunciation first these days.

By the way, I love the new movie review section! Hope it's a recurring feature. Mrs. Whorfin and I only make it to a couple per year so we like to live vicariously through reviews. You just need a local truck driver to complete the Providence recapitulation (paired with your Ivy League self, that is.)

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