By Joan Ellis
The critics haven’t warmed to The Iron Lady. Though Meryl Streep has won raves for her performance as Margaret Thatcher, the movie itself has become as controversial as its central figure. Why? The Week reports that for David Sexton of the Evening Standard, the movie is the story of a woman who succeeds in a man’s world rather than a right wing politician who destroyed unions, threw thousands out of work and privatized industries. He regrets the lack of focus on the events of her political career, a view that is echoed on both sides of the Atlantic. The naysayers love to point out what the movie did not cover.
They miss the point entirely. This film is not a biographical record of Thatcher’s time in power as England’s first woman prime minister. As directed by Phyllida Lloyd and written by Abi Morgan, it is instead a brilliant view of her tenure as seen through the increasingly cloudy and fractured lens of a woman in the process of losing herself to dementia. She can grasp snatches of her past, but only snatches. We see what she remembers, and we see it in the fragments that pop into her mind in bold colors – the forbidding, black suited men of the hostile Establishment, for example. It is a very clever way of giving us both the reality of a terrible disease along with pieces of the political and personal history of the complex woman who lived it. What the critics ignore is that this is a chronicle of Margaret Thatcher’s fractured memories as recalled at random by her damaged brain. It is not a documentary.
Thatcher remembers the waves of angry protestors who pounded on her car window, the Establishment mockery of the ascent of a grocer’s daughter, and most often of all, she remembers Dennis (Harry Lloyd and Jim Broadbent). They met when she was working in the family grocery store – she, earnest and strong, he, a bespectacled prankster. They married and she reaches out to him as he is now, a spectral presence in her dementia. Thatcher is very young when she warns Dennis, “I will never be one of those women who stays silent on the arm of her husband. I cannot die washing out a teacup.” She does neither; and he stands by for a long time until, finally, he leaves.
You would be wise to leave your biopical expectations at the door and enjoy instead Meryl Streep’s extraordinary ability to inhabit rather than impersonate a character. She simply becomes Margaret Thatcher – member of Parliament, prime minister, leader of the Falklands war, devoted wife, and finally, an old woman diminished by a terrible disease of the brain. Streep’s ability to imagine and convey both Thatcher’s chilling strength and touching vulnerability is an inexplicable skill not given to easy analysis. Let’s just say that her performance is pure gold.