The Iron Lady Review: Thatcher, Screen Portrait Or Movie Prop?

While biopics about the departed tend to be fraught with bias according to how the filmmakers feel about their chosen human subjects, a balanced view of those still alive is compromised to an even greater degree. And resulting in films tainted with a conscious reticence stemming from potential lawsuits of the displeased parties in question themselves.

Which leads to the peculiar enigma of the Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. An inquiry into the decade long reign of the first and only British female head of state in the 1980’s – and for that matter the first woman ever to head a world power. And a film that has succeeded in antagonizing both liberals who have denounced her, and her own arch conservative supporters who feel this portrait in her declining years is disrespectfully weak – and a debate occasionally akin to a bar room brawl. While at the same time even embraced by each opposing side as evidence of their respective warring points of view.

And while some may interpret this as evidence of a balanced perspective in the movie, the reality is that the film has elicited such criticisms by saying practically nothing at all. A seemingly quite calculating strategy on the part of director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan. (And there is a male co-screenwriter, Michael Hirst, but nobody ever talks about him because part of this strategy is to peddle The Iron Lady as a feminist tract, but more about that later).

And the dramatic devices in The Iron Lady that diminish political controversy are quite blatant. First, a universally appealing movie star is chosen to play Thatcher, namely Meryl Streep. Rather than say, a Brit who might have really voraciously sunk her teeth into the role, like Judi Dench. Who is currently so ferocious in Clint Eastwood’s J.Edgar as Hoover’s tyrannical mom, that she comes off as more intimidating than he is.

Then there’s the time period chosen by the filmmakers to burrow into Thatcher’s life. It’s the present, when the former prime minister is a virtual invalid in a progressively deteriorating state of advanced senility. So her political life is then softened and blurred through the prism of confusion and memory loss. Which is quite a shrewd move on the part of the filmmakers – don’t blame us for historical discrepancies, blame the victim.

And somewhere between Hollywood’s usual ‘have your cake and eat it too’ approach as a financially based bid to appeal to every potential audience member in sight – and Thatcher’s own hardline ‘let them eat cake’ draconian budget cuts in an assault on unions and the poorest sectors of the population – is a misleading ploy. That is, to peddle the movie as a feminist production. Which has elicited the quite ironic statement about the movie by Thatcher press secretary Bernard Ingham, that ‘there must be something wrong with it if it’s converting all these lefty women to the view that she was something rather good.’

And so Thatcher is portrayed on screen as virtually showing up out of nowhere in Parliament for no compelling personal reason in particular, and instantly whipping all those male wimp politicians into line. When actually in a case of the other way around, and not unlike Sarah Palin, Thatcher was groomed and manipulated to project a dishonest female empowering public image. The better to snatch the women’s vote away from the liberal Labour Party, and ensure Tory conservative victory.

Not that this deliberate confusion surrounding The Iron Lady and Thatcher hasn’t already spilled over into public discourse some time ago. Take for instance, the label ‘Daughters of Thatcher’ championed by conservative leaning women. And for whom Thatcher as inspiration held out hope for successful future lives, even as her massive privatization has led to a financial tailspin into the economic crisis currently in progress.

On the other hand, there are those women referring to themselves as ‘Thatcher’s Girls.’ A British term coined in the 1980s, when Thatcher’s policies led to widespread unemployment. And a resulting upsurge in those who became prostitutes, and defiantly claimed that designation.

The Weinstein Company

Rated PG-13

1 1/2 stars

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.