In 1996 Margaret Thatcher was the keynote speaker at the Foundation for Economic Education’s 50th anniversary banquet at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. It was such a big event, and Thatcher was such a gigantic speaker, that William F. Buckley, a formidable force in conservative circles, agreed to appear as a moderator rather than a speaker.
Buckley’s role was simply to introduce Lady Thatcher and handle questions during her presentation. He was told to keep things moving and not let the answers go on for more than a couple of minutes. Buckley took his job seriously, standing up after two minutes to gently let Mrs. Thatcher know it was time to stop talking and let him ask the next question.
But Lady Thatcher was having none of that. She had handled the members of Parliament for over 30 years; she could certainly handle William F. Buckley! A questioner asked about China; Lady Thatcher began speaking; and after two minutes, Buckley stood up. Thatcher continued speaking. Buckley edged toward the microphone. Body language shouted for Thatcher to yield.
She did not. The Iron Lady filibustered on China for several minutes. She talked about politics. She talked about industry. She talked about pandas! She spoke eloquently and intelligently, including specific names and details. She knew her stuff. Buckley stood beside her like an errant fool, until he finally backed away and sat down. Only then did Thatcher conclude her remarks on China and graciously ask, “Next question?”
She was a lady throughout. She never scowled, she never lost her temper, she never stopped speaking. But she had a spine of iron. The great William F. Buckley was put soundly in his place, with grace and good manners. And she gave the audience a jolly good show. I’ve never forgotten it.
We see none of that character and grace in The Iron Lady, now in theaters with more than a few whispers of another Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep. Streep is indeed wonderful in the role she is playing. She shuffles with the hesitant gait of a woman in her 90s. She mimics Thatcher’s voice and cadence. She carries her unnecessary handbag with the dignity of the Queen. But she projects none of the grit, power, and philosophy that made Margaret Thatcher one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. For most of the film, her Thatcher is pathetic and befuddled.
The Iron Lady opens on an elderly nondescript woman shuffling through a grocery store, hesitating over whether to purchase a quart or a pint of milk. She selects the smaller container, pays the grocer her meager 49 pence, then shuffles out, bumping into other shoppers who refuse to yield for the seeming bag lady. After returning home to breakfast, she complains to her husband (Jim Broadbent) about the price of milk. This is not the prime minister who rescued England from bankruptcy; this is the grocer’s daughter who seems to live now in the projects.
Worse, it turns out that Dennis Thatcher has been dead from cancer for several years. Nevertheless, he and Margaret talk to each other throughout the film. He is in her dressing room, her kitchen, her living room, her bed. She knows he is dead. She knows she is hallucinating. But she talks to him anyway. It’s natural to speak to a deceased loved one and say “I miss you” out loud. Jimmy Stewart “talks” to Martha at her graveside in Shenandoah. Heath Ledger poignantly breathes the smell of Jake Gyllenhaal’s shirt at the end of “Brokeback Mountain.” Streep does something similar when she goes into Dennis’s closet and breathes in the smells from his jacket. But she goes way beyond portraying grief. Streep’s Thatcher is bereft, bewildered, and befogged.
It is true that Mrs. Thatcher has suffered a couple of strokes in the past few years, and it may be that her mind has become befuddled. She’s 87 years old. But we do not go to a movie about Margaret Thatcher to see how sadly she has aged. Or to see how well Meryl Streep can play an aged woman. We want to see evidence of Thatcher’s iron will, her brilliant economic philosophy, her political wit and candor. We want to see her in her greatness, not her twilight.
As so often happens in Hollywood when filmmakers portray conservative heroes, the producers of this film are fascinated by their subject but unwilling to give her credit for her accomplishment. We see numerous scenes of IRA bombings and union riots. We hear voiceover about spending cuts, unemployment, and Britons’ inability to pay their mortgages. Thatcher proclaims at one point that they will need to close inefficient mines.
All this makes the film very timely, reminding the audience of current events in America: high unemployment, falling wages, mortgages in default, out-of-control deficits, and Romney’s ill-advised statement, “I love to fire people.” What’s missing is the mountain of good that was accomplished by Thatcher’s privatization policies, under which government workers were given the opportunity to own shares in the privatized utilities for which they worked.
I lived in London during the ’80s. I saw the results of privatization. Allow me one personal example. When we bought our flat in 1985, we wanted to add a second phone line. We were told we would have to wait at least two years for a number to become available. We also needed some repair work done on the existing phone line, for which we were given an appointment six months in the future. Six months! We were stuck with the antiquated instrument itself. Brits could not even purchase their own equipment; everything belonged to the government utility, and the government utility was not about to update the phone.
A couple of years later, after the phone company had been privatized, I called again to have my phone repaired. A repairman was at my flat the following morning. In a few short years the company had become profitable, efficient, and prompt. Yes, some people lost their jobs, especially from the ranks of bloated, redundant management. Cutting costs does hurt in the short run. But they were offered severance packages and early retirement opportunities. In the long run, the entire citizenry profited from lower costs and better technology. The filmmakers deliberately overlook this point, and all points like it.
Instead, we see glimpses of Thatcher’s life through the eyes of a sad, confused old woman. Occasionally she reaches back into her days as the daughter of a grocer (albeit a grocer who was active in local politics), determined to “make one’s life matter,” and to her decade as prime minister. But these scenes are brief and unsatisfying. They focus mostly on her ineptness as a mother, her shrillness as a speaker, her bouffant makeover, and her problems with being accepted by Parliament.
I ask you: would Dennis have been criticized for choosing to go into politics instead of staying home to raise the children? Yet Margaret is vilified for her decision — and by a triumvirate of females, no less: woman screenwriter, woman director, woman producer. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) flounces off in anger when Margaret announces that she is going to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party, and apparently the audience is supposed to be sympathetic — to Carol! When the elderly Mrs. Thatcher looks through a box of mementoes, it is filled with hand-drawn cards and crayoned pictures that say “I love you Daddy.” None are written to “Mummy.” This hardly seems fair, especially in today’s climate of opinion. If a man isn’t criticized for leaving his family while he goes to work, why should a woman be?
Thatcher brought a unique sensibility to her role as prime minister. As she wrote in at least one letter to the parents of a soldier killed in the Falklands War: “I am the only prime minister in Britain’s history to have been a mother.” She had long-term vision, coupled with an understanding of short-term costs. She was exactly what Britain needed. She should be remembered as a woman who devoted 50 years of her life to public service. She should not be remembered as a pathetic old lady who barely knows her own name.
The young Margaret Thatcher is played winningly by Alexandra Roach. Perhaps if Roach had been prosthetically aged and allowed to play the entire role, The Iron Lady would have been an engaging and enlightening biopic similar to the very fine film The Queen (2006), in which Helen Mirren gives an intimate and insightful portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Instead, The Iron Lady is simply a vehicle for Ms. Streep to demonstrate her considerable skill at mimicry.
This is not necessarily Streep’s fault. She did not write the script. But I doubt that she bears any of the admiration for her subject that Mirren bears for hers. I’m certain that she enjoyed portraying Thatcher as the shuffling, elderly, hallucinatory woman who was written for her to play. She will probably receive her umpteenth Oscar nomination for the role.
I just hope she never has the bad fortune to meet Lady Thatcher in public. I suspect Streep would receive a gracious, well-mannered cold shoulder that would make Buckley’s treatment at the FEE banquet look like a warm embrace. And it would be much better deserved than the Oscar nomination she is likely to receive.
Editor’s Note: Review of “The Iron Lady,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Weinstein Productions, 2012, 105 minutes.