Margaret Thatcher was prime minister for much of my childhood, although by the time I was aware of the world enough to be aware of politics I was already living in the U.S. To some extent, in my mind she’ll always be prime minister, just because she was around for such a long time when I was young (although oddly my default mental image of the American president is Bill Clinton).
And so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be looking at The Iron Lady on some Movie Monday, even though a) it’s weird to think of parts of my own lifetime as “history” and b) I was not particularly excited about seeing it. In fact, I put off watching it for over a week when it arrived, in the same way that I have put off watching 12 Years a Slave. Too depressing. But let’s get to it now.
So, I’ve said that I thought I would find the movie too depressing, which I didn’t. What I wasn’t expecting was to find it … well, dull. It’s very well made. Meryl Streep is great, of course, very convincing, very versatile, tough and weird and vulnerable. Jim Broadbent is good as Denis as well, but, y’know. Jim Broadbent. But there’s this whole framing-narrative device about Thatcher talking to the imaginary ghost of her husband, and I’m just not sure it goes anywhere in particular. It humanises her, but not in a way particularly relevant to the plot. Broadbent gets a certain amount of exposition, I guess.
I am not a historian of the period, so I can’t tell you about accuracy other than in outline, but at that level it seems to be more or less on point, although it’s primarily concerned with the personal effects of the various political crises rather than their overall social context. We hear Thatcher say a lot about how things in the country are much better, but very little of the film takes place outside the corridors of power. There is a lot of rumty-tum patriotic music during the Falklands War, although honestly I think it’s just meant to show how tense and serious everything is for her.
Maybe it’s that that makes it so curiously flat. Like a good, responsible Hollywood biopic it wants to portray its subject ambiguously. But most people don’t have ambiguous feelings about Mrs Thatcher; they think of her either as The Iron Lady or as Satan J. Devilface. That’s whatcha call a “polarising figure,” I guess.
(Although I suppose even some people who fall into the Devilface camp might find her story interesting on a personal level, in the same way one might want to know how a famous criminal got that way.)
And it’s interesting and even has some OK jokes. But it’s just Incidents from the Life of the Celebrated Mrs Thatcher. It’s well–executed, but ultimately it feels a little pointless. Streep kills it, but … to what end?