REVIEW: Bad Mummy! The Iron Lady Oversimplifies — and Sucks Up To — Margaret Thatcher
Phyllida Lloyd and Meryl Streep work a puny bit of flim-flammery in The Iron Lady: They turn Margaret Thatcher into a folk hero, a woman who, poor lamb, had to make sacrifices in her personal life in exchange for political power. This is a watery, artfully evasive picture, anchored by a stupendous feat of mimicry. Some people call that acting.
In The Iron Lady, Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, and boy, does she play her: It's not just the crafty prosthetics, the careful swooping of the powdery-no-color hair, the meticulously chosen jacket-and-skirt ensembles that conjure the chilly specter of the seemingly indestructible former Prime Minister of Great Britain. Everything Streep does -- her strutting-pigeon walk, the way she purses her lips just so after making a particularly harsh pronouncement in the presence of her cabinet -- suggests many hours' worth of vocal exercises and scholarly dissection of video footage. Streep has obviously studied the hell out of Margaret Thatcher, but that isn't the same as getting to the rotten core of her. The performance is neither sympathetic nor damning -- it's simply meticulous and unblinking, and it reads more as a failure of nerve than as an act of bravery.
Yet Streep's performance doesn't exist inside a bubble, and it's of a piece with the picture's conception of Thatcher as a not-bad lady who actually had some good points, if you squint really hard. The Iron Lady focuses more on Thatcher's personal and interior life, only brushing against her politics. It's as if Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan don't want any of those old nasties -- Thatcher's crackdown on the miners' strike of the mid-1980s, resulting in thousands of lost jobs; the institution of the poll tax; the insidious gutting of the National Health Service, at the hands of the woman who famously proclaimed "There is no society" -- to intrude on their portrait of Thatcher as just a plain old grocer's daughter with deep-rooted class insecurities and the kind of ambition that makes the male species cringe.
Thatcher did, of course, make her male colleagues cringe, but The Iron Lady suggests that they cringed only because she was a threatening female, and not because they found her views politically and morally specious. It's a bit of doublespeak that comes in handy when you're making a picture about all that a woman must give up when she when she craves power and authority in a man's world.
Lloyd, Morgan and Streep are obsessed with those sacrifices, even though they can't prove how authentic they might be in Thatcher's actual brain: The picture opens, and continually returns to, Thatcher's later, post-Prime-Minister years, as she's toddling around at home in her housecoat and chit-chatting with her husband, Denis (played by the nearly always wonderful Jim Broadbent, who continues his track record here). She informs Denis that milk has gone up to 49p a pint -- imagine! And nixes his just-for-fun idea of donning a silk turban with a suit for normal daywear. But it turns out that Denis no longer exists: He has died, and while Margaret accepts it logically, she can't accept it emotionally. When her doctor, during a routine examination, asks her if she's had any hallucinations recently, Streep's Margaret flinches ever so slightly before responding, "No."
So you see, Margaret Thatcher, powerful as she was, was capable of being loved and, get this, actually loving. To a point: The story also flashes back to Thatcher's younger days (as a teenager and young woman, she's played by Alexandra Roach), driving away in her car to her new MP job as her two children, twins, run after the car, crying, "Mummy, don't go!" Still, she puts the pedal to the metal -- bad mummy! But that's what you need to do if you want to run a country.
The mid-period stuff in The Iron Lady focuses on Thatcher's rise to power -- by this time, she's played by Streep, not yet obscured by age makeup, and addressing her fellow MPs in a series of prim, silly hats. When Thatcher loses the hats -- as coached by her colleagues and mentors Gordon Reece (Roger Allam) and Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), the latter of whom would shortly thereafter be killed by an IRA bomb -- she wins the general election. From there, she proceeds to choke off the power of the trade unions, stoke unemployment and institute tax policies designed to goad the poor into pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. But you don't really see much of that in The Iron Lady, other than some cursory handwaving at the vague notion of lost jobs and montages made up of old riot footage.
What you do see is Thatcher as channeled by Streep, being a tough old bird of a human being, a woman who, upon her engagement to Denis, announced, "I can't die washing up a teacup!" Margaret Thatcher -- at that point Margaret Roberts -- was destined for greater things, and she got them.
But Lloyd and Morgan -- as well as Streep -- are more fixated on the personal price Thatcher had to pay than they are on the damage she ultimately wrought. The picture reeks of sexist special pleading. The overarching tone is "Just look at what this woman had to overcome!" Lloyd might say in her defense that she wanted to make a personal portrait of Thatcher, not a political one. Clint Eastwood might say the same thing of his recent J. Edgar, which focuses more on J. Edgar Hoover's closeted personal life and unhappiness than on the lives he destroyed in the name of patriotism. But when you're dealing with figures whose decisions and policies have been so destructive, is it even possible to separate the personal from the political? And if it's possible, is it advisable?
The Iron Lady is a handsome-looking picture (the DP is Elliot Davis) with a handsome-looking star. Streep's Thatcher, with those trilling, fruity vowels, that glint of superiority in her eye, is impeccable. But to what end? Streep gives us no real clues into Thatcher's inner life -- not that we necessarily want them. This is an oversimplified portrait disguised as a complex one. Nowhere in the movie is it mentioned, to suggest just one example, that Thatcher referred to those striking miners -- people who were simply trying to make a living and provide for their families -- as "the enemy within." Some of us wonder, still, how Margaret Thatcher can continue to live with herself. Watching Meryl Streep walk around so ably in Thatcher's skin isn't enlightening; it's more like a living nightmare.