Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Lady’s Mettle: A Memory of Maggie

Meryl Streep stars as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady

In the early 1980s two Brits at The Socialist Worker newspaper designed an immense movie poster for a faux updated version of Gone With the Wind. Instead of Vivien Leigh in the arms of Clark Gable, the image depicted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher being carried by President Ronald Reagan under the promo “The most EXPLOSIVE love story ever.” At the bottom, another tagline: “She promised to follow him to the end of the earth. He promised to organise it!” The context was that this dynamic trans-Atlantic duo had been pushing humankind to the brink of nuclear annihilation. The symbolic Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ticked dangerously close at eight minutes to midnight.

Dialogue in The Iron Lady, however, never seems to include the word “nuclear” and Ronnie appears as a mere Post-it note rather than a poster in the examination of the Maggie’s career. There’s one brief snippet of them dancing together. Much of late 20th-century history, in fact, flies by as a footnote to her magnificent obsession: the belief that, in a time of rampant misogyny and sharp class distinctions, a woman from humble circumstances could remake a rather liberal society into an ultra-conservative empire. After knee-capping the trade unions at home, Thatcher turns her attention to empire in 1982 by ordering the United Kingdom to wage war against Argentina over control of the Falklands a chain of islands located just off the coast of South America, almost 8,000 miles from London. 

Jim Broadbent and Meryl Streep as the Thatchers
But The Iron Lady spends most of its 105 minutes inside the deteriorating brain of the protagonist, played with great intelligence and a convincing British accent by Meryl Streep. Suffering from dementia, the contemporary character conjures up hallucinations of her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), who has been dead since 2003 the same year Reagan passed away. No wonder she imagines him still by her side. Always clowning around, Denis apparently had the sense of humor that she lacks and was the only living soul able to get her to loosen up a bit. 

Perhaps Maggie’s personality deficit is due to growing up as a girl (Alexandra Roach) who’s something of an outsider and a misfit in the village where her father Alfred Roberts (Iain Glen) is a grocer, a Methodist preacher and one-term mayor. The precise reason is never explained. Is it envy or outrage for daring to be different? She no doubt becomes more advanced than most of her hometown peers in terms of education, training at university as a chemist and a barrister.

Later, we witness Thatcher alienating others either with her imperious temperament and right-wing certainty or the fact that political aspirations are only supposed to be appropriate for men. This is the film’s inherent paradox: Should viewers be reviled by her hard-hearted ideology or feel compassion for her protofeminist struggle? It’s like asking us to admire the equally stubborn Condoleezza Rice as an example of tolerance in a party, the Republicans, that invariably plays the race card during elections. Similar to Clint Eastwood’s recent sympathetic profile of J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar, Iron Lady screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, 2011) and director Phyllida Lloyd (Mama Mia!, 2008) seem to think someone with essentially fascist instincts offers a fascinating contradiction for cinematic purposes. Audiences probably would not buy tickets if these people were presented as thoroughly villainous and exploring complexity is a must, of course but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to soft-pedal the damage they cause.

Specific details of the damage Thatcher wreaked on the country are not in evidence, as opposed to the endlessly intimate details provided from her domestic existence. Instead, a panorama of misery is revealed in swift, broad strokes: IRA bombings! Rioting miners! Imprisoned Irish hunger-strikers allowed to die! The surge of patriotism that follows victory in the Falklands! Massive unemployment! The 99 percent is seen only in fast-moving archival footage even the millionaires whiz by. 

Richard E. Grant (center) as Michael Haseltine
While never clearly identified as individuals, Thatcher’s associates, including Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) and Defence Secretary Michael Haseltine (Richard E. Grant), tend to be caricatures. The Labour Party fares no better. Maybe the intention is satire when cabinet ministers and MPs scurry around like gerbils. We’re left to wonder if all these guys really could have been utter twits in real life. When she ultimately starts belittling everyone who has been loyal to her, behavior that leads to a downfall from the pinnacle of power, it’s difficult to comprehend why because those characters are so sketchily drawn.

Then again, might Thatcher’s contempt be a clue about the coming cognitive disorder, which is known to provoke hostility? That’s as much a mystery as why she’s semi-estranged from her mother in early scenes and later from her adult son Mark. Only his twin sister, Carol (Olivia Colman) remains close to elderly Maggie at the end, if you don’t count the ever-present specter of Denis. The public no longer recognizes her on the street a decade after she leaves office, though there’s a possibility the nation would prefer to forget

Some of the most interesting sequences take place when advisors prepping her for a run at 10 Downing Street decide an extreme makeover is required. Thatcher’s dowdy clothing, matronly hairstyle and shrill voice are replaced by fashionable-for-their-day outfits, a snappier ‘do and deeper vocals. Her steely will remains the same, with the motto “We shall never waver.” (There was to be no wavering on her anti-immigration and pro-South African apartheid stances, or deregulation and privatization policies   none of which surfaces in the biopic.) She’s called a monster as the economy collapses and spending is severely cut, but rules for almost 12 years.

Her make-believe Rhett Butler from the fake Gone with the Wind enjoyed a parallel stay in the White House, coincidentally ending up with Alzheimer’s disease to match Thatcher’s dementia. Both gone from power for more than two decades, luckily they didn’t destroy the planet in their wake. The Iron Lady never does justice to how close they may have come. 

 Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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