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Iron Lady falls flat

Jessica Squires

February 13, 2012

The Iron Lady

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Reviewed by Jessica Squires

From 1979 to 1990, Margaret Thatcher ruled Britain, and is now a member of the House of Lords. During her regime as leader of the British Conservative Party, she waged a war for the tiny Falklands—against the Argentine military—and bombed Libya; opposed the anti-apartheid sanctions on South Africa and paved the way for decades of neoliberal domestic economic and social policies. In many ways, she paved the way for the descent of Labour into third-way politics under Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Love her or hate her—and supporters of social justice and civil liberties likely fall on the latter end of the spectrum—Thatcher is a formidable historical figure. She presided over the most significant attack the UK working class has ever seen.

So you’d expect a movie about her life to reflect that imposing silhouette, especially when the acting talent of Meryl Streep is in the mix.

Unfortunately, if the movie hoped to be thought-provoking in any way, it fails so dismally as a political picture as to make one wonder if any thought went into it at all. To be sure, it is an acting tour-de-force for Streep. The most convincing moments of the film are those in which Streep portrays Thatcher in the near-present-day, as a recluse who teeters on the brink of dementia. Here, Streep’s Thatcher can even make us sympathetic to her humanity.

But the film’s overreliance on a conventional device of flashbacks is its Achilles’ heel. Everything we see—riots against the flat tax proposal, strikes, speeches, political rallies, protesters banging on Thatcher’s car windows—is from her perspective. The film ends by merely depicting events, refraining from providing enough context for the viewer. Why did workers vote for Thatcher in 1979? How did she hold onto power for so long?

These depictions are so one-dimensional, the movie leaves one with the impression that Thatcher’s success was almost accidental. For instance, her decision to wage war in the Falklands appears to have been motivated by her desire to prove something to the boys, and to have been based on a less-than-competent approach to foreign policy. Thatcher was at least a bit more cunning than that.

In one pivotal scene, Thatcher expresses her disdain for those in life motivated by “feelings,” saying she cares about “Thoughts and ideas. That interests me. Ask me what I’m thinking.” Unfortunately, by showcasing this moment, and by one-dimensionally treating its subject, we are left with the impression that thoughts and ideas had nothing to do with Thatcher’s real-life motivations. We are led to believe that, like any stereotypical woman, she was motivated by irrationality and emotion, and that her success was mere coincidence.

That’s why claims by the filmmaker (Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed Streep in Mamma Mia) that she purposely avoided politics, and was trying to focus on a gender-based examination of experiences of power and powerlessness, are, in the end, pitiable.

Streep’s performance is worth the price of admission, but you might want to wait for the video.

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