A couple of weeks ago, Roger and I went to see The Iron Lady, with Merle Streep starring as former British Prime Minister (1979-1990) Margaret Thatcher. Streep demonstrates her marvellous versatility as an actor, and the movie fascinated me, but it was not a balanced look at Thatcher and her impact.
This blog contains "spoilers", so if you want to be surprised by The Iron Lady, don't read on.
The movie begins with a portrayal of Thatcher in her old age, suffering from dementia, entertaining delusions that her husband, Denis, who died in 2003, is still by her side. The time shifts back and forth from the senility sections to the highlights of Thatcher's career (or the low points, depending on your politics.)
Who wouldn't feel sorry for an enfeebled older person struggling to cope with daily life while aware that she is not in command of her faculties? Showing Thatcher as pathetic in old age evokes the viewer's sympathies, something that the portrayal of Thatcher at the peak of her powers doesn't. I found myself feeling sorry for the sad old woman, even thinking ahead to the day when I may be in a similar situation. Then I remembered the many seniors whose difficulties of old age were intensified by Thatcher's policies.
The massive demonstrations against Thatcher's policies are shown as film clips from the era, and look like amorphous, unfocused mobs because it isn't made clear when they took place and what provoked them. Those of us who remember the era know they were againstprivatization and cutbacks.
Also, I don't think the Brighton hotel bombing incident is historically accurate as presented.
Usually, a film about a controversial figure with a specific political philosophy would include a "corrective"; that is, another character who exemplifies the opposing viewpoint. The only such corrective in The Iron Lady is a brief scene in the House of Commons where the actor playing Michael Foote of the Labour Party speaks. The movie does not include, for example, any scenes of parents crying, "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher!" when Thatcher was education minister and cut the free school milk program. Nor does it show the plight of any coal miner's family during the miners' strike.
Nevertheless, Thatcher's actions, as presented through Streep, often speak volumes. The prime minister seems drunk on power as she gleefully encourages full tilt war on Argentina in 1982 over the Falkland Islands incident, thereby diverting public attention from her domestic policies and securing her re-election. Several scenes show her bullying attitude toward her cabinet ministers, which resulted in resignations and finally, her ouster as leader.
Early in the film, we see young Margaret raptly listening to her father, the owner of two small grocery stores, as he addresses a local meeting on the virtues of individual effort. Another scene shows teenaged Margaret and her dad joyfully reading her letter of acceptance to Oxford University. Her work worn mother, emerging from the kitchen, is glad, too, but won't touch the letter as her hands are wet with dishwater.
Margaret identifies with the parent who gets out into the wider world. Later, when young Denis proposes, she tells him that she can't be the kind of woman who is always at the kitchen sink, and that she feels it is important to make the best use of her life and her abilities. He agrees. While I can certainly relate to her feelings, I am also aware of many women who have fought their way into public life in order to make things easier for the unsung heroes whose work is ordinary, yet vital to society. Our own Agnes MacPhail, the first Canadian woman Member of Parliament, is just one of many.
Near the end of the film, a very elderly Thatcher summons up her independent spirit and gets on with a task that others have offered to help her with. All by herself, she packs up Denis's clothes, realizing that keeping them isn't helping her state of mind. She appears to seize control of her hallucinations and has a fantasy in which she bids him a fond farewell and lets him go down their front hallway towards the light.
At the end, dressed to go out to an appointment, Lady Thatcher is finishing a cup of tea, and instead of accepting her employee's offer to wash the cup, she takes it to the sink and does it herself. The end seems to suggest that, in extreme old age, Thatcher is applying her iron will to her own plight; also, that she is considerate of those who do the joe jobs. Perhaps old age is the great leveller, a time when people recognize their common humanity.
As a film about old age, The Iron Lady is compelling. As a movie about Thatcher's life and work - her policies and their impact - it is hardly a comprehensiven balanced view. It appeals to the eye, however, has some interesting cinematic/storytelling techniques, and is thought provoking.