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‘The Iron Lady’: Power in Spectator Pumps

Posted on Jan 14, 2012
imdb.com

Meryl Streep suits up as Margaret Thatcher in this still from “The Iron Lady.”

By Carrie Rickey

Nothing like a movie to drive a wedge between ideology and feelings. I remember that wedge’s painful thrust watching “Nixon,” Oliver Stone’s tragedy about the 37th president, a polarizing figure who I had been bred, in utero, to despise—yet there I was, empathizing with him for the better part of three hours and 12 minutes. I felt it again, if not so acutely, during Phyllida Lloyd’s “The Iron Lady,” a flinty profile of Margaret Thatcher, England’s 49th prime minister and the first woman elected leader of a Western democracy. My responses were so contradictory that I can account for them only by transcribing the interior dialogue scribbled in my notebook.

As the film toggled between the Alzheimer’s-addled twilight of Baroness Thatcher, shuffling through her apartment in carpet slippers, and key scenes from the high noon of her ministry, where she resembles Athena clad in a bouffant helmet and spectator pumps, my responses likewise alternated between aversion and sympathy.

In truth, the fluctuations of emotion commenced as I walked into the theater. Not fond of filmmaker Lloyd, the stage director responsible for both West End and Hollywood iterations of “Mamma Mia!” (with $600 million in box office receipts, the most commercially successful film by a woman). I’m always happy when a movie connects with an audience, even happier when it’s by a woman. But still, “Mamma Mia”? And now, Mama Maggie? I’m fond of Meryl Streep, but good golly, with Julia Child, Isak Dinesen, Nora Ephron, Carrie Fisher and Karen Silkwood thus far, can Streep play someone other than a boldface name?

Soon after the lights go down, I have to admit that Lloyd’s Thatcher portrait is more polished than her rendition of the ABBA jukebox musical. This is faint praise. On the plus side, Lloyd doesn’t frame every scene as though it’s being played under a proscenium arch. On the minus, her establishing shots come in two perspectives, extreme-high-angle, as though God is looking down upon Baroness Thatcher; and extreme low-angle, obliging audiences to look up to Herself. And Streep, magnificent. She understands that impersonation is not acting. Even while playing the aged Thatcher diminished by dementia, Streep conveys an undiminished authority.

Abi Morgan (whose other controversial scenario in 2011 was “Shame,” with Michael Fassbender playing a sex addict) wrote “The Iron Lady.” Whatever you think of her, Thatcher had spine. Not so Morgan’s impressionistic screenplay, which opens in the indefinite present, with the former PM flashing back to her unassuming origins and parliamentary triumphs, then back again to her imaginary conversations with her long-dead spouse, Denis (jolly Jim Broadbent). Morgan’s script has a framing device that one might call the Tempest and the teacup: When Denis proposes, resolute young Margaret says yes, please. But she stipulates that he must support her career: “One’s life must matter. I cannot die washing up a teacup.” Well, guess how the movie closes.

Do we learn anything about Thatcher from Morgan’s screenplay? And more important, will anyone born after Thatcher’s 11 years in office learn anything about her brand of conservatism and its effects? Lloyd and Morgan provide the bullet points from the prime minister’s three terms, an anti-union position here, pro-deregulation stance there, the poll-tax riots and yes, the Falkland invasion. But one who knows little about British politics or geopolitics between 1979 and 1990 will be mystified by the lack of context and utter failure of the filmmakers to connect Thatcher’s convictions with these positions.

“The Iron Lady” comes neither to praise Thatcher nor to bury her. The considerable imaginative sympathy of the filmmakers and their lead actress is toward one purpose: to make the moviegoer walk in the (sensible) shoes of she who boldly strode where no woman has gone before, to experience the full force of female power. The sight of Thatcher’s pumps in the line of men’s wingtips queuing up to enter Parliament delivers a simultaneous jolt of adrenaline and estrogen. As does the overhead shot of her peacock-blue chapeau among a sea of shiny bald heads.

The unyielding Streep plays it not to the hilt, but to the armpit as the once-belittled seedling who becomes the tall poppy. Her Thatcher masters her social awkwardness and fear, is unafraid to stand up and stand out, unafraid to talk over men who do not succeed in interrupting her. As the uncompromising Thatcher, human ramrod, Streep made me sit taller and straighter. As the first prime minister in British history who was also a mother, she made me cry as she shows the PM handwriting condolence letters to the parents of soldiers who died in the Falklands. Hated the war, moved by the grief.

Regrettably, “The Iron Lady” does not include my favorite Thatcher anecdote. When she served in the cabinet of Prime Minister Edward Heath, he disparaged a candidate for BBC chair by remarking, “He’s got a much too high opinion of himself.” From the end of the table Thatcher interrupted, “Well, most men do, Mr. Prime Minister.” The parts of “The Iron Lady” that were most effective for me distill that Thatcher self-assurance and wit.

Would Thatcher appreciate the irony that by the film’s end, as she’s rinsing that teacup—I had developed feelings toward the political figure I had for decades reviled? Or would she have harrumphed, as she does in the film when her doctor asks how she feels, “One of the great problems of our age is that we’re governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas”?

I strongly suspect the latter. And I wish the film about her had wrestled as much with her thoughts and ideas as it did with her feelings.


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By stjust, January 18, 2012 at 8:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Apart from Denis, most of the other characters have
glorified walk-on roles—with the sole apparent
purpose of making Thatcher look good by comparison.
In fact, Thatcher rose to prominence in the
Conservative Party as the figurehead of its right
wing. She had a coterie of backers, who provided her
with policy and direction.

The only political event given greater attention is
the Falklands-Malvinas War. Here we see the most
naked whitewash of Thatcher. After showing her as a
child during the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Grantham, and
as the victim of terrorism at the hands of the IRA,
The Iron Lady offers us a version of the British
prime minister as a new Winston Churchill. The open
admirer of Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet,
Thatcher is seen passionately pledging her
determination to defeat the “fascists” of the
Argentine Junta. The sinking of the ARA General
Belgrano in May 1982, with 323 Argentine lives lost,
while it was sailing away from and outside of
Britain’s declared exclusion zone, is justified in
the film by the military’s telling Thatcher that the
ship could easily turn back and carry out a pincer
movement…—Chris Marsden
http://wsws.org/articles/2012/jan2012/iron-j10.shtml

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By diamond, January 17, 2012 at 9:17 pm Link to this comment

“a swastika is a good symbol of Thatcher’s rule.”

I agree. She was a Fascist and still is, wherever she is. My favourite thing about her and Augusto was a cartoon that showed them both sitting in huge, overstuffed armchairs in a drawing room and Pinochet is saying to Margaret, ‘These stories about me in the press, Margaret. It’s torture!’ Think about it. In spite of that, the movie is a superb work of filmic art and Streep gives a performance as near to flawless as you can get. I don’t have to like Thatcher or agree with her politics (as anyone who knows anything about Streep knows she also does not) to appreciate brilliance.

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By diman, January 17, 2012 at 6:45 am Link to this comment

There is a billboard where they post posters for the upcoming movies on my way to work on the central street of our city and as soon as “The Iron Lady” appeared on it, somebody drew a swastika on Meryl Streep’s forehead, on all three of the posters. So they covered it up with fresh ones and guess what, next day another swastika appeared. No disrespect for Meryl Streep’s talent, but a swastika is a good symbol of Thatcher’s rule.

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By James M. Martin, January 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm Link to this comment

The only good thing about Thatcher is that she is gone. Someone made reference to the wonderful BBC movie depicting her friendship with the banana republican, Pinochet, a blood-thirsty fascist dictator who was arrested in England and held on extradition to the World Court.  There is a delightful moment in the film when the house-arrested Pinochet (craftily played by Derek Jacobi) is told that he has a visitor—his first and last.  A door is opened and there is a brief glimpse of a double for the Rusting Iron Lady.  The understatement of it was remarkable.  This woman was closer to Reagan than anyone save perhaps Nancy.  But she went to even greater lengths to trample the rights of the poor.

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By ALON, January 16, 2012 at 4:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Quem deu esse apelido de “Dama de Ferro” foram os neocons. Ela como Pinochet implantaram direitinho a política economica de Miltom Friedman.
Precisamos relatar qual foi o resultado dessas politicas?

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By Robespierre115, January 16, 2012 at 11:40 am Link to this comment

I wonder if the film explores her friendship with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

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By TOC, January 16, 2012 at 11:12 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

THINK ABOUT THIS:

YOU DON’T ‘HAVE TO’ LIKE THE FILM.

YOU DON’T ‘HAVE TO’ AGREE WITH THE THESIS, APPROACH, BIASES AND PRECONCEPTIONS SHOWN IN THE MOVIE.

THAT’S OK.

NOW GO AND MAKE A FILM THAT YOU WOULD BE 100% HAPPY WITH.

yEAH, I KNOW, YOU CAN’T.

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By diamond, January 15, 2012 at 9:48 pm Link to this comment

I saw this film with my daughter. She cried most of the way through it. She said she couldn’t stand for anyone to be so alone, not even Margaret Thatcher. Meryl Streep is a genius and has created someone who is not Margaret Thatcher and not Meryl Streep but a fully three dimensional creation of her own. I don’t know how she does that, but I have to admire it. And if she doesn’t get the Oscar she will have been robbed - again.

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By Sodium-Na, January 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm Link to this comment

The “Iron Lady” did not have one milligram of the element of Fe. The proof: As her son was pronounced missing by the media,world wide,she became hysterical and started crying like any another typical mother in the human race.Period.

Question: why then giving her the misnomer,“The Iron Lady”?

Answer: Because she was rude to all men who disagreed with her policies. Another Period.

She really does not deserve all that attention,since she has not done anything of value for the poor of Britain,let alone to the poor of the human race.

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By OzarkMichael, January 15, 2012 at 8:20 am Link to this comment

I hope we treat the Leftist heroes with the same artistic method.

I hope we use their weakest and worst moments as the setting against which we view the rest of their lives, just like this film did with Thatcher.

I hope that all their best accomplishments and greatest contributions are glossed over while their personal difficulties are emphasized, just like this film did with Thatcher.

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By nabla, January 14, 2012 at 8:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

poor robes, when will you get your birthday cake?

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By Robespierre115, January 14, 2012 at 5:21 pm Link to this comment

“The Iron Lady” is just more postmodern slop where a film about something says nothing. People these days are so terrified about offending anyone that they make historical films without any actual history.

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