'The Iron Lady': A Movie About Politics That Avoids the Political

By telling Margaret Thatcher's story through her own eyes, the film spins a compelling personal tale but glosses over her controversial policies and decisions

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20th Century Fox

Anyone looking to frame Hollywood as having a liberal bias needs look no further than at the way conservative politicians have been portrayed on screen. The standard method for depicting right wingers is with distanced condescension: Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Tim Robbins’s satirical Bob Roberts, and Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar—three of the most prominent examples—each showed their protagonists as sinister wrongdoers or dimwitted egomaniacal boobs.

The historical record has shown that there’s truth to the ways Nixon and J. Edgar envision their subjects, and the character of Bob Roberts brings to mind Rick Perry with a guitar. However, these movies never let you forget that their portraits are molded to fit the filmmakers’ specific points of view. These are not Nixon’s, Hoover’s, or Roberts’s stories as they might have envisioned them.

That’s why Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, opening in limited release Friday, stands as a rarity for how it treats Margaret Thatcher, the iconic, conservative British prime minister who shattered the glass ceiling at 10 Downing Street when she was elected in 1979. The film views Thatcher with sympathy and admiration; the effect is a strange movie that manages to compel while also coming off as shortsighted.

The Iron Lady frames its portrait of Thatcher’s life and career in a series of private, closely held memories that wash over the elderly ex-PM while she struggles with dementia. Abi Morgan’s screenplay takes root inside the protagonist’s head and stays there. Thatcher’s enemies become our enemies and her friends become our friends. It’s an approach that couldn’t work without Meryl Streep, who offers one of her patented disappearing-act performances as Thatcher. She nails Thatcher’s distinctive speaking style while so immaculately transitioning from moments of bombast to subdued pain that it’s easy to forget you’re not watching the real person.

By rejecting a detached, clinical, or otherwise critical portrait of Thatcher’s time in office, the movie is freed to offer a celebration of her historical significance. It zeroes in on the major personal obstacles she faced and convincingly argues that she’s worthy of universal admiration, regardless of one’s political leanings. The film all but ignores policy specifics in favor of depictions of the twin burdens of motherhood and leadership: the challenges of being a good, faithful wife and also a head of state.

Most significantly, The Iron Lady celebrates the inroads Thatcher made into a man’s world. It explores the challenges of extracting British politics from a suffocating old-boy’s club sensibility and of being taken seriously as a woman shaping policy. Lloyd drives home the scope of Thatcher’s achievement by resolutely sticking to the main character’s vantage point, using clever visual tricks such as isolating a young Maggie against the sea of monochromatic men’s outfits as she walks through the halls of Parliament during her first day on the job.

In some respects, however, The Iron Lady is a dishonest enterprise. The film pays lip service to some of Thatcher’s more controversial initiatives, among them the flat tax, the Falklands War, her widespread anti-union activities, and her opposition to South African Apartheid sanctions. She rants about entitlements and rages at her subordinates, but rather than spend too much time on the substance of her years in office, the movie employs a complicated flashback structure that finds it frequently jumping back to her younger days and forward to her lonely later years. There are saintly underpinnings throughout.

That glossiness has angered critics such as Variety’s Leslie Felpern, who decried the “glib, breakneck whirl around her career and marriage.” LA Weekly’s Karina Longworth derided the film’s “attempt to humanize [a] controversial historical figure via delusion.” They’re not wrong. The movie does offer a scattershot, convoluted approach to Thatcher’s story, moving between time periods with something less than rock-solid logic. At the same time, there is unquestionably another movie to be made about Thatcher’s time in office that dramatizes the often destructive effects of her policies. Stone, for example, could make a different and no less interesting movie on the topic.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a sympathetic movie about a volatile conservative figure. With a narrative that’s filtered through an elderly Thatcher’s eyes, The Iron Lady becomes the story of a woman who defied extraordinary odds to achieve a measure of greatness, impacting the world while carving her way into an out-of-touch, sexist institution. However one feels about Thatcher’s policies, whatever one makes of her complicated legacy, there’s little disputing the tale that The Iron Lady chooses to tell.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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