I’ve been a big fan of Meryl Streep ever since Sophie’s Choice (1982), but for some reason hadn’t gotten around to watching her portrayal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2012, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, a British film director and producer). It seemed like the perfect match-up for a Saturday night: the story of the first women to rise to the highest political office in the UK brought to life by a favorite actress.
Yet-I found this movie perplexing. The film opens with a batty old lady stumbling around a shop, buying a pint of milk. I could barely make out Meryl and was confused how this could be Thatcher, who putters anonymously along the streets of London. Getting wise to the technique of starting a story at the end of a life, and then filling in the important stuff in a retrospective, I sit back and wait.
And wait. Nearly half the film is about an elderly lady hallucinating about her kind and beloved husband. It’s a touching story, but not exactly what the most powerful woman of the western world in the twentieth century is known for. The message seemed to be that this woman had a supportive father as well as a devoted husband- lucky girl! That’s how she managed to enter the halls of power.
Even when the film gets around to her accomplishments, they leave out interesting details, like that she was a chemistry major. No information or encounters in her subsequent academic pursuits, or early years. We do discover her husband was a businessman and also a family man, but isn’t the story about her?
More often than not the portrayal of her career lands on the tragic- such as the scene where she is writing letters to the families of the servicemen who died in the Falklands War. No mention that the conflict was provoked by an Argentinian invasion on April 2nd, 1982, and was wrapped up with a decisive victory by June 17th. What does a girl have to do to get a little recognition?
An overt concentration on the loosing side of her political career continues through the whole film, from the riots following her proposal of a “community charge,” to the waning of political judgement after so many years in office, to the tears that spring to her eyes when she resigns. Yet the voice of her husband pipes in, “Chin up old girl.” There’s Denis with his unfaltering support.
This representation of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, the longest serving prime minister of her generation, blessed as a dementia patient so she doesn’t have to relive a faltering political career, is more than a little odd. Any female who started in a grocery store and rose to lead men, not listen to them, must have been– spellbinding.
It’s not even difficult to find her admirers. Check out the level of reverence in William F Buckley Jr’s voice as he introduces her in this clip from Firing Line. Meanwhile, she sits in her chair composed and alert, neither aloof nor nervous. Just present. This was 1977. Two years into being the leader of her party, and two years away from being elected to the top job.
It would have been far more interesting to tell the tale of how she discovered and cultivated her ability to captivate her male (and female) counterparts. Instead of showing how two men coach her into a new hair do and enhance her elocution skills (ho hum), how about the moments she went from awkward to confident, from nervous to calm, from hesitant to determined? How did she come to realize her je-ne-sais-quoi?
Meryl Streep took home the best actress Oscar for her performance. I just don’t think she was playing Maggie Thatcher.