Monday, February 6, 2012

“The Iron Lady”: Profoundly Moving

Despite the film’s hard title and the flinty reputation of its title character, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, “The Iron Lady” moved me as few recent films have. You really don’t expect to shed a tear over a conservative leader who put coal miners out of work or—against the advice of her all-male cabinet—attacked Argentina when the junta there ordered the occupation of the Falkland Islands. But I did.

Is there any American actress—ever—who could have played this role as Meryl Streep does, surrounded by an otherwise all-British cast? On that count alone, she deserves her third Oscar, although she might not get it. The reason? One word:


I’m not talking about Hollywood insider stuff. That may account for the Greatest Living Film Actress having won only two Oscars out of a ridiculous seventeen nominations so far. The politics I mean are those that have polarized us, and in such a short time. Only 23 years ago, leaders like Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and a Polish Pope named Wojtyla helped bring down the Berlin Wall.

Now, I’m betting that hip and liberal Hollywood is scratching its head and wondering how this remarkable biopic about Reagan’s global dance partner ever got made. And voting for someone else.

Why did it move me? Two reasons mainly:

First, “The Iron Lady” is a movie I would like both of my adult daughters to see and study. In flashbacks, young Welsh actress Alexandra Roach, in her first film role, plays Margaret Roberts as a young woman—a grocer’s daughter from the sticks who wins a place at Oxford, falls in love with Dennis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd), runs for Parliament as a conservative, and in 15 short years becomes the leader of her party.

In a lovely scene, a young woman approaches Thatcher as an older woman and tells Thatcher how much she has inspired the young woman and others like her. Thatcher/Streep replies that people used to want to do something, now all they want to do is be something. In that pithy statement, she points to all of the self-absorption and egoism of our present cultural moment.

Played early by Roach and picked up in the 1960s by Streep, Margaret Thatcher is a paragon for any young woman who wants to do something, which in her case also meant raising two children and getting along handsomely with her husband (played in later years by the lovable Jim Broadbent). The movie does not canonize Thatcher, who is portrayed as a distant mother, just like her own mama. And it lets us see Dennis Thatcher’s pain when he feels abandoned by an over-ambitious spouse.

But if anyone doubts that this is a woman’s picture from first to last, they need only read the production credits, which include a female director (Phyllida Lloyd) and writer (Abi Morgan), three female producers (out of seven total), and a female editor. 

The second reason I was moved by “The Iron Lady” is that it is framed as the memories of a woman with dementia. In early scenes and throughout much of the film, the screen is dominated by close-ups of Streep as a very elderly Thatcher, widowed since Dennis’s death and living in an apartment, tended by paid help and her visiting daughter (Olivia Colman). This close-up camerawork takes us inside the being of Thatcher and allows Streep to work her subtle magic with eyes and lips and inclinations of her head.

Broadbent appears to her in numerous fantasy scenes, the bosom companion of her late, lonely years. But dementia does not diminish Thatcher’s character; on the contrary, thanks to the filmmakers’ art and Streep’s all-world performance, it raises Thatcher up into a full and feeling humanity.

“The Iron Lady” is a well-told chronicle about events that turned the twentieth century, with a brilliant woman as its centerpiece; but it is also a film that helped me appreciate the courage it takes to remember one’s life and to complete it, even in dementia. As played by Meryl Streep, Margaret Thatcher is a towering figure to the very last.

1 comment:

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