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Terrorism, wars, riots, economic downturns of epic proportions. Sound familiar? The Iron Lady may not be about twenty-first century America, but it’s hard to remember that with the many parallels between Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister and our current world climate. As powerful as the lady herself, this film about the world-changing Thatcher is magnificently constructed with artistry in every layer and one of the most impressive performances in Streep’s award-winning career.
Perhaps most surprising is the rich story that tells of much more than an interesting historical figure. The complex, poignantly real characters transcend the screen with an emotional depth that allows The Iron Lady to grow into an exploration of life, love, grief, aging, and more.
But a bomb is dropped on the movie when the filmmakers inexplicably include a moment of female nudity. Though brief and wholly unconnected to the story or characters, this scene may make The Iron Lady a film that some Christian viewers will want to avoid.
To an outside observer, the elderly Mrs. Thatcher seems like an average, aging person. A bit absentminded at times, she moves slowly and is plagued by increasing confusion and memory lapses. Though she tries to hide them, she even has hallucinations of her deceased husband. She likely has a story, as all people do by her advanced age, but most young people would assume it would be of no interest.
But this is Margaret Thatcher, the first female and longest-reigning Prime Minister in Great Britain. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan’s partner in negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev, the restorer of Britain’s economic strength, the war-time leader who led Britain to military victory with stalwart strength.
Years after those victorious days, Margaret is frustrated by what she sees as a lack of leadership in her country and the world. With this discontentment as fuel, Margaret starts to retreat into her safer, or at least more pleasing, past. Few people around Margaret seem to have an interest in remembering who she was and no one treats her as she wants to be treated—as the Prime Minister. They all want her to move on from the past, but she has nothing in the present or future that can compare with her years in the political arena. Margaret’s life now offers only her emotionally distant twin children—a son who doesn’t visit her anymore and a daughter with whom Margaret is unable to connect.
Knowing she should move forward, Margaret instead frequently slips back into memories of her past. She recalls the young woman she was, a grocer’s daughter whom no one expected to ever have a seat in Parliament, let alone become Prime Minister. Before her election, Margaret herself believes that no woman will ever be Prime Minister in Great Britain during her lifetime. Even so, Margaret is driven like few other people, striving with all her might to “do something” and make her life matter.
When Margaret looks back on her life and career, years later, she seems to be looking for the evidence that it did matter—that she made a positive difference with few or no mistakes. Hindsight, they say, is 20-20, For Margaret, that clarity of vision may show her successes, but also failures that she can choose to accept or deny. It may be that coming to terms with her real self and the truth of the past will be the only way that this Iron Lady can weather the present and the future.
While The Iron Lady includes plenty of actual events and even historical news footage from Margaret Thatcher’s era, this film never once feels like a boring history lesson. Writer Abi Morgan and Director Phyllida Lloyd keep the production so character focused that it avoids the clichés, predictability, and staleness that too often plagues biographical pictures.
The script throws the audience off-balance immediately by opening with an untraditional narrative order. Rather than beginning with Margaret as a young woman, or even starting in the middle of her successful career, viewers instead meet this once formidable woman as a deteriorating, unintimidating shadow of what she once was.
Because of this story device, viewers are prevented from approaching this story in the same way as other biographical tales of great figures. One is instead forced to see Margaret Thatcher, the person. With the glories and power stripped away, viewers are left with nothing more than that. Yet, it is through this vulnerable woman that the audience can be made to empathize, contemplate, and learn, far more than through the presentation of an inimitable political force.
Not long into the film, it becomes obvious that Margaret is far from perfect, and the movie makes no effort to hide her faults. Rather, The Iron Lady emphasizes the controversy surrounding Margaret’s actions as Prime Minister and boldly displays the character faults that lead Margaret to neglect her family, insult political colleagues, stubbornly insist she is always right, and never apologize even when she knows she’s done wrong. Never once is this behavior condoned in the film, and viewers see Margaret suffer the consequences for her actions. Through these flaws, the humanity of Margaret becomes palpable, lending a depth to the formidable reputation that she earned through hard work and determination.
At the same time, Margaret stands as a positive example in other areas. Despite mistakes and the imperfections that all people share, Margaret has a drive to combat the evils of the world. She wants to save her country, fight for what is right, and help the hurting. Unlike many who pay lip service to such ideas, Margaret is not afraid to “do something,” to act and courageously confront the adversaries when no one else will.
But a question that the film deals with is whether or not Margaret’s actions come truly from a desire to save what needs to be saved or rather personal ambition. As a young woman, Margaret voices her fear of dying after only having been a housewife and mother. One’s life “must mean more than that,” she says, “beyond the cooking and the children.” Margaret does get married and have children, but always with the understanding between herself and her husband that her political career will come first.
Again, the filmmakers handle this issue with objectivity, even while telling the story through Margaret’s point of view. This balance is marvelously achieved by letting viewers see what Margaret does not in the actions, words, and reactions of the people around her. The character depth of this film is crucial and brilliantly executed, as the supporting characters are so fully developed that the audience can understand their perspectives even when Margaret is too concerned with herself to realize the hurt she is causing others.
The good writing of the screenplay would be of little value, if it were not brought to life by skilled actors. Yes, Meryl Streep won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role as Margaret Thatcher, and yes, she earned it. Excellent make-up and costuming can give an actor an aged appearance, but only an actor of Streep’s caliber can add the eye-movement, the manner of speech, and the almost imperceptible essence of a person well beyond her own age. At the two ages and phases of life Streep plays in this film, she is equally up to the demands of both—tying them together with a seamless consistency, yet subtle evolution of character that occurs as one ages.
Streep also has the luxury of being surrounded by supporting actors of unusual talent and expertise. Olivia Colman as Margaret’s daughter Carol adds much to viewers’ understanding of Margaret through this portrayal of her daughter. Jim Broadbent nicely fills out the role of Margaret’s supportive and humorous husband, and Anthony Head stands out in his sadly limited role as one of Margaret’s political advisors. Thanks to these and other performances, every secondary character seems to have a compelling story of their own, but there is never any doubt that, for this film, the best story to be told is that of the Iron Lady.
The weakness in this artistic telling of Margaret Thatcher’s story lies in the problematic content the film includes. Viewers should be aware that some of the historical news videos include documentation of mob violence and show people who are bloodied and perhaps dead as a result.
As one might expect, The Iron Lady characters throw around quite a bit of offensive language. Margaret herself isn’t guilty of much foul language, but her husband makes up for that in droves by dishing out most of the movie’s usages of “bloody,” “h---,” and the like. Other characters are guilty, as well, and add several more obscenities to the mix. Profanities are limited to “Oh, my G--”, which is used several times. That said, the amount and type of offensive language in this film is mild compared to most PG-13 movies of recent years.
Where The Iron Lady stands out from others in a disappointing way is in its surprising inclusion of nudity. During one of the sequences of historical footage, two women are shown topless as they wave in celebration of the return of British soldiers from a hard-fought victory. The image is only on screen for a matter of seconds, and is not presented in a titillating way, but it casts a sordid cloud on what is otherwise a happy sequence for viewers as they share in Margaret’s triumph. Because the nudity is so thoroughly unconnected from any plot, character, or other reason for being in the film, one has to wonder why the filmmakers included it at all.
This error, intentional as it may be on the part of the filmmakers, is devastating to find in a film that otherwise has much to offer. In many respects, The Iron Lady is not the story of Margaret Thatcher that one might expect to see from Hollywood. In a culture that worships worldly success, this film dares to peel back the air-brushed image of a success poster child to reveal that the world’s definition may not be the right one.