Oscar Profile: The Iron Lady

by Tom Ingram

Genre History; Biography
People Meryl Streep; Jim Broadbent; Anthony Stewart Head; John Sessions; Thomas Newman m.; Margaret Thatcher s.; Richard E. Grant; Phyllida Lloyd d.
/10 8

A once powerful woman, now old, retired, and suffering from mental illness, looks back on her life as a politician and tries to overcome hallucinations of her dead husband.

I can’t help but think that The Iron Lady would have been a better film if it had eschewed the Margaret Thatcher angle altogether. It’s not really about Thatcher so much as “a powerful woman in her retirement”. Using Thatcher brings in politics and distracts from the main issues of love, grief, dementia, and regret.

However, since they brought politics up, let’s get it all out before moving on any further:

Even the scenes that are about Thatcher aren’t really about her. They’re about her mythology. And the dirty secret of conservatives is that while they have a very attractive, sensible mythology, it has almost no connection to the things they actually do. So Thatcher speaks of standing on your own two feet even as she cuts yours off, and then chides you for complaining about it. She speaks of making decisive actions, rather than solving problems—or, rather, she acts as if boldness were the same thing as effectiveness—which makes her not unlike the career politicians she derides. She’s not actually better than them—she just possesses a more deft knack for politicking. Conservatives play dressup in their business suits and speak in solemn tones about responsibility and economy, but theirs is a fundamentally infantile ideology that Thatcher typifies.

Now that that’s over with, let’s talk about The Iron Lady as a movie. The film’s best moments are in the present when Streep forgets she’s playing Margaret Thatcher and simply plays a sad old woman who misses her husband. Streep is a skilled actress, but in this role she gives me the nauseating feeling of being acted at. The first scene, especially, screams “This is Meryl Streep’s take on Margaret Thatcher,” rather than “This is Margaret Thatcher”.

The other performances are from people not often seen outside of British TV. Anthony Stewart Head is wonderful as always, playing Lord President of the Council Geoffrey Howe. Thomas Newman’s score ranges from subtle to Mendelssohnian. I thought it was good, but it wasn’t nominated.

The script is true to life, but there’s something disconcerting about being overtly orated at. Politicians’ speeches, in movies and in real life, always make me want to go “yes, but…”. Thatcher’s aforementioned “decisiveness” leaves no room for yes-buts, and that’s frustrating even though it’s accurate.

As a poignant story of an authoritative woman rediscovering her strength after being beaten down by circumstance, The Iron Lady hits it out of the park. Unfortunately, making it a biopic and directly connecting it to history not only invites but demands a moralistic, political discussion. As a final judgement on Margaret Thatcher, it’s not likely to please anyone.

Up for:

  • Best Actress (Streep)
  • Best Makeup