Review: The Iron Lady (2009)

The Thinker by Rodin

The Iron Lady? Who’s she? Did Tony Stark give Pepper Potts her own iron suit? It sounds right as last time I saw an Iron Man movie, Tony had turned over the company to her, so she sure could afford one.

No, The Iron Lady is not about Pepper Potts, who is a heap more attractive and younger than the subject of the movie, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep. However, the actress portraying a young Margaret Thatcher (Alexandra Roach) is quite attractive. That’s before Margaret Thatcher frizzed up the hair and started putting on those hats.

Her husband Dennis too could turn a few heads in his prime (played as a young adult by Harry Lloyd, and as a ghost by Jim Broadbent). As a ghost, Dennis is basically old and crotchety and Margaret Thatcher is senile, half in the real world and half out. The half out part is due to the passing of her husband, which she doesn’t fully grasp. Dennis may be gone, but not his ghost. Margaret and Dennis lived so long together that even in death, she cannot escape him. So Dennis becomes a figment of her imagination that basically drives her batty.

Curiously, as written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady becomes mostly a story about Thatcher’s decline, senility and her sparring relationship with her husband Dennis, who doesn’t appear to enjoy  being in her shadows very much. The story of her life is abbreviated, with snippets of key events of her tenure as member of parliament and prime minister acting almost as filler. It’s a movie that I think should have spent more time chronicling her tenure in office rather than her sad final years. Thatcher certainly was a memorable politician, almost the U.K.’s version of Ronald Reagan, who was also in office at the time just across the pond. Thatcher had a lot of tough love for her country, which mostly meant throttling its overpowered unions. The daughter of a merchant, she saw small businesses like her father’s as the true engine of economic growth, and worked tirelessly to allow them to thrive. This also meant putting labor in what she perceived as its rightful place: under management’s heel rather than being forces of obfuscation that they often were.

Thatcher was a woman that fed controversy; so much so that when she finally died in 2013 her passing also became a political event. To this day there is no one in Great Britain neutral about the baroness: she is either loved or loathed. On her death, many British radio stations were requested to play “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead” from the Wizard of Oz. For the Iron Lady caused a lot of pain, while arguably bringing Britain a new renaissance. For those who suffered her wrath and pain, like many in the labor unions, she will be despised as someone who triggered massive social change, unemployment and reduced standards of living. As in America, a lot of the wealth moved toward the privileged class.

Thatcher was certainly a woman driven by principle. Tenacity was bred into her. At least as portrayed in the movie, she was not intimidated by being one of the few women in parliament or to fight on the floor of the House of Commons as doggedly as any man. It’s not surprising, particularly given her gender, that she drew outsized attention in Parliament and within the Conservative Party. Streep portrays her as something of an anti-politician, who simply would not compromise and charged doggedly ahead. At times it made her look foolish, such as during a strike by sanitation workers when trash piled up on the streets and outside the Parliament. At times it made her look cruel, as when her police battled protestors in the streets with clubs and tear gas. In many ways, the 1980s were for Great Britain what the 1960s were for the United States: a period of great social change.

These nuggets of Thatcher’s life in politics are what sustain the movie. What pulls it back is the story of her relationship with Dennis, who is portrayed as both a ghost as bothersome husband. He is mostly just vying for her attention, as Thatcher’s interest is primarily in politics. That Dennis appears as a ghost is probably to emphasize a deficiency in Thatcher: that she gave her marriage short shrift. That was okay with Dennis going into the marriage, but as the marriage evolved and she gained in political stature it became more and more irritating. No wonder Dennis appears as a ghost. With nothing else about Thatcher to check her supreme self-confidence, only her relationship with Dennis is something the script writer could find to introduce self-doubt within Thatcher. Many other Britons found all sorts of faults in Thatcher, but none that Thatcher herself would acknowledge.

Overall, the movie is a decent portrait of a prominent politician and groundbreaker. Both Streep and Broadbent give fine performances worthy of their first class status as actors. That the writer and director chose to focus principally on Thatcher’s relationship with Dennis seems off, and particularly myopic. It imperfectly tries to psychoanalyze Thatcher and leaves you with more questions than answers. Another curiosity: the movie was financed in part with profits from the British lottery, much like The King’s Speech. That’s a sort of socialism Thatcher would not have approved of.

The Iron Lady is worth seeing as a character study of a woman as seen through the director’s narrow prism. It will keep your attention. However, it feels that with a different director and writer, it could have been a much better movie.

3.0 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★☆