“The Iron Lady” is not a very good movie. In conception, it suffers from the problem inherent in any biopic: the order of events is well-known, and the characters are dictated by history. The result is that most biopics are bad. The classic example is Richrd Attenborough’s “Young Winston,” which despite being directed by a prominent cinematic artist, and being based on one of the great adventure stories of the modern age, is desperately dull.
In comparison to that low standard, “The Iron Lady” comes off tolerably well, though it suffers badly from a “if it’s minute 56, it must be the miner’s strike” feeling. It’s also far too obvious about putting guns on the mantelpiece in the first act so they can be fired in the third: when you hear a young Margaret Thatcher saying she doesn’t want to end her life washing up tea cups, you know how the movie will end. And it’s got an obsession with butter – covering it, using too much of it, and buying it– that may have been intended as a misbegotten metaphor for domesticity, but comes off as weird.
The much-discussed, tedious, demeaning, and tasteless episodes of Thatcher’s old age, and the hambone contributions of Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher, certainly break up the chronology of the biopic, and seem to have been intended as the focal point of the movie: there’s a good deal of evidence that director Phyllida Lloyd and Meryl Streep wanted to use them to discredit Thatcher, not to make a movie that would burnish her image. Yet strangely, that’s more or less what they’ve achieved.
The present-day material is so irrelevant and faded compared to the vibrancy of Streep’s Thatcher in her prime that it inspires not a meditation on the loneliness of power, or a sense of “ashes to ashes,” but a desire on the part of the viewer to get the faux Denis off the screen and go back to the action. And while the movie clearly implies that Thatcher devoted too little time to her family – a point that sorts ill with its depiction of her as a feminist heroine – it tends, by devising a cartoonish Denis, to make her interest in politics all the more explicable and human. All this personal backstory is a Hollywood invention, pure and simple, but even dramatically, it doesn’t work.
Frankly, I went into “The Iron Lady” expecting the worst. Making a movie about Lady Thatcher after Number 10 struck me as being like making a movie about Churchill after 1955. But as Churchill once said, if you get a few big things right, you can afford to make a lot of little mistakes. And the movie does one thing completely right: it lets Thatcher speak her case in words that are – mostly – plausibly hers, and because the case and the words are powerful, they blow away the opposition, with the result that the movie’s political narrative is strongly Thatcherite.
In fact, not a single one of Thatcher’s opponents appears to have had anything going for them. Edward Heath is an appeaser who can’t even keep the lights on in Number 10 (fortunately, Margaret has a flashlight in her handbag); Michael Foot is a blithering, braying idiot with bad hair; Al Haig is shown as inept (a scene that had the Americans in the audience cheering Thatcher on), and her opponents in the Cabinet are spineless nincompoops who carry out a nursery school rebellion against her because she’s too vigorous in pointing out their uselessness.
From the Thatcherite point of view this is raise a cheer stuff, but it’s not great history. Agree with them or not, Heath, Haig, and the rest were not negligible figures. Nor is it necessarily a contribution to building up Lady Thatcher’s legacy: Thatcher’s only real opposition in the movie comes, inchoately, from the British system, and ultimately from herself. Indeed, “The Iron Lady” subtly – but not intentionally, I think – implies that Thatcher triumphed only because almost everyone else in Britain was a buffoon. True, the standard of political leadership in Britain in the 1970s was relatively low. But it’s hard to be a world historical giant in the movies if your competition is a bunch of pygmies. Even Streep’s performance, brilliant as it is, is not so much acting as it is mimicry.
Given the movie’s weaknesses, speculating about its political agenda is probably futile. For what it’s worth, my sense is the movie intended to be a “how the mighty have fallen” rumination, combined with a conventional left-wing take on Thatcher’s Britain. For example, during the Falklands War, Thatcher is told that sinking the Belgrano would be an escalation and invite an Argentine response: the shot of the British torpedo leaving the tube jumps to one of an Exocet missile striking HMS Sheffield. Cause and effect, the movie implies: it was Thatcher who killed those British sailors. Similarly, there is quite a lot of footage of angry miners, hard-partying city bankers, and various rioters. But none of this works because, while the Hollywood left may have no doubt where it stands on these issues, the movie simply assumes its case. In the end, it’s Thatcher who has to make the tough decisions, and the fact of her making them comes across as far more impressive than the film’s imputations about their effects.
Many of the film’s reviewers in Britain have been Thatcher’s friends and colleagues, and their dislike of its exaggerated and voyeuristic depiction of her failing health is understandable. But even the Denis scenes end with a Thatcher victory: she sees the ghostly Denis off, and closes – washing up a teacup, yes – on a suitable note of steely determination. In real life, Thatcher’s courage manifested itself in recognizing that Britain had spent the post-war years trying to reconcile the pursuit of low unemployment, low inflation, high growth, a stable pound, an export surplus, and large and steadily increasing government intervention in the economy. This was not so much a chosen policy as a refusal to make tough choices, and by 1979, it had completely stopped working.
By accepting the need to make choices, Thatcher broke out of the trap, and by doing that, she gave the following generation the luxury of being less than fully serious. Many people resented both her enthusiasm for making decisions and the decisions she made. But as Richard Vinen pointed out in the New York Times last month, Thatcher’s successors “ceased to think of politics in terms of hard choices and scare resources. . . likability [of the kind exemplified by David Cameron] may not be enough when the British people realize that their current predicament . . .is actually worse than the crisis when Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1979.”
“The Iron Lady” is not a particularly good movie. In structure and feel, it’s much more a one-woman play than it is a film. But on the screen it’s a success nonetheless, if only because, perhaps without meaning to, it displays conviction politics in their purest, most elemental, and most attractive form.