It seems that a couple of the most respected actresses of the late-20th/early-21st centuries are choosing roles they want to serve as the capstones on their already-remarkable careers, with Glenn Close going the androgynous route in the forthcoming Albert Nobbs and Meryl Streep taking on the daunting task of actually trying to humanize Margaret Thatcher is director Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic The Iron Lady. And while neither of these parts can exactly be called casting against type, and in fact both might be considered to be downright safe choices, perhaps even the stereotypical “roles they were born to play” (although that might seem strange to say when we consider that in Nobbs Close will be playing a woman living as a man), the fact is that we know we’ll be getting our money’s worth out of both of these pictures at least as far as the acting is concerned, which is more than you can say for a great number of films being churned out by either the Hollywood mill or the nominally “independent” scene these days.
In short, then, I wasn’t expecting The Iron Lady to be much beyond a tour-de-force showcasing of Streep’s not-inconsiderable talents, and in truth it’s not, but that’s okay because it does keep you pretty firmly glued to your seat for its nearly-two hour run time. Sure, the always-reliably-wonderful Jim Broadbent turns in a quietly magnificent performance as Thatcher’s husband Dennis (mostly portrayed as a hallucinatory figure haunting his wife’s dotage long after his death), but this is Streep’s show all the way in the same way that 1980s Britain was Maggie’s.
One thing that all the publicity/hype surrounding this film is being pretty coy about, though, if not downright dishonest, is this insistence that Lloyd and company are offering us some sort of “neutral” or “non-judgmental,” at the very least, look at Thatcher’s life and career. In short, that’s total BS. This is a film with a very strong editorial viewpoint, one eerily similar to Oliver Stone’s Nixon, and that is — underneath all that bombast, these right-wing politicos are just human being like you and me. Which is, of course, true — they’re products of their upbringing (in Thatcher’s case the daughter of a conservative grocery-store owner who spent her formative late-teen years surviving Hitler’s vicious aerial blitz on Great Britain) just like we are, but the point at which their consciences make the crucial break that allows them to view their fellow human beings as nothing more than grist for their ideological mills isn’t adequately explored in either Stone’s film or The Iron Lady, and thus the audience is left with nothing much to hang onto as far as the script is concerned and is left, instead, with the disquieting feeling that, well, hey, maybe these people just did the best they could (and the lie is further put to this “neutral approach” sales pitch by some of Streep’s television interviews where she has a habit of pointing out that Mrs. Thatcher was pro-choice and didn’t try to shut down the NHS — oh, well, guess it’s all okay, then).
From start to finish, Britain’s first (and to date only) female Prime Minister is portrayed in nothing but the most sympathetic terms, as it’s emphasis on her declining mental and physical state today (and to be honest these “framing” sequences” are where Streep shines most brightly — her mannerisms and body language are absolutely impeccable and her portrayal of a proud, dignified woman who knows she’s losing her marble but is powerless to stop it is palpably raw and immediate) functions as more or less an immediate “cheat” designed to engender heartfelt sympathy for Thatcher from the audience. To be sure it’s a “cheat” that works thanks to Streep’s absolute inhabiting of the role, but it’s blatantly manipulative nonetheless.
The bulk of the story is mainly told through flashbacks (with Alexandra Roach standing is as a young Maggie Roberts-cum-Thatcher until she gets elected to parliament in 1959), and this gives Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan the ability to conveniently gloss over some of the more controversial aspects of Thatcher’s tenure such as the miner’s strike and Maggie standing stoically by while 10 Irish hunger strikers literally starved themselves to death (both of which receive only the most cursory glancing-over) while an inordinate amount of time is spent on Thatcher’s supposed greatest “triumph,” the bloody-and-completely-unnecessary Falkland Islands conflict, which is ultimately portrayed only in the most glowing terms after a curosry nod is given to the lives that were lost in this pointless last stand of British imperialism. Subjects even more damaging to the Thatcher legacy, such as Denni’s unsavory business dealings and Maggie’s early embrace of the racist government of Ian Smith in Rhodesia aren’t even mentioned at all.
That being said, Streep does, indeed, draw you in so completely with the force of her portrayal that you find yourself absorbed by Thatcher’s life story in spite of yourself. You know you’re being hoodwinked into viewing this highly divisive figure through the most rose-colored lenses possible, but you lose the urge to fight against it, and that, depending on how you look at things,is either The Iron Lady‘s greatest triumph or most unforgivable blasphemy.
Look, let’s not confuse the issue here by saying I’m equating them in any way, but I’m sure a skilled actor could present Hitler or Mussolini in humanistic terms that gave us some level of heretofore-unexpected insight into how they ended up doing what they did as well, but is that a noble goal in any way, shape, or form? Let’s recall that it wasn’t so terribly long ago that giving a portrayal of Charles Manson that was considered “too sympathetic” in Helter Skelter derailed the once-promising career of Steve Railsback, yet Margaret Thatcher —and, for that matter, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and Jr., Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, etc. — ordered their followers to chalk up body counts greater than anything Manson could have ever dreamed of, yet Streep is more or less guaranteed on Oscar for her (admittedly superlative) work on this picture. But I guess the whole debate as to why individual criminals are “evil,” while it’s perfectly acceptable for the heads of the world’s governments to function as CEOs of the Fortune 500 of mass-murder, is beyond the scope of a simple movie review to tackle.
In short, then, this is a film that really does succeed in exactly what it sets out to do (even if the film’s Weinstein-driven publicity machine is less than honest about what that ultimate goal is) — it humanizes the life story of an extremely controversial figure, one who prided herself on being thoughtful and calculating and seldom if ever showed emotion, to the point where even her fiercest critics will walk away feeling some shred of empathy for her and will find themselves being more accepting, at the very least, of some of the decisions she made. Whether or not you consider such an aim to be at all worthwhile will largely determine how much you enjoy, or are ultimately disenchanted by, The Iron Lady.