Generally speaking, I only write reviews for films and books which I’ve enjoyed. Part of it comes from being a writer: I’m loathe to criticise others’ artistic endeavours given that I work so hard on my own. The other reason is that it’s all too easy to succumb to the pleasures of writing negatively: there is a cathartic effect associated with venting one’s spleen. Praise without delving into sycophancy is a fine art, and difficult to master; it’s more of a challenge.
However, I will have to make an exception in the case of “The Iron Lady”, as it’s a film that is perceived to be exceptional, and indeed bears the laurel of Meryl Streep’s Academy Award, yet is barely touching mediocre. In this instance, it’s justified to take a feather duster and swipe away the cobwebs of spin and marketing.
When I bought this Blu-ray, I was under the impression that I was going to get something like a definitive portrait of Lady Thatcher. I didn’t expect fidelity to every last factual detail, however, I believed that a well made film could distill her essence in a way that a history book simply couldn’t. I thought that through carefully crafted scenes, the audience would gain a new perspective on what drove her, what made her so lacking in empathy and so unrelentingly ambitious. She did change the face of Britain: here in the North, it’s relatively easy to find the broken pieces of once mighty industry, the edifices shattered by the policies that her government pursued. I don’t have to drive far to find abandoned coal pits, and communities still lingering in a blighted afterlife in which people are pushed to get off benefit and work, but don’t have any work to do. These consequences were widely foreseen; why did she do what she did? What drove her? What made it impossible for her to relent? Who is she?
The film only achieves something near an explanation in two places: first, we are shown an episode in young Margaret’s life while she and her family are hiding from German bombs. As they cower in an improvised shelter, her father asks if the butter has been covered; as he’s a shopkeeper, this is more than an idle query. Young Margaret rushes back into the house, defying the blitz in progress, to ensure that the butter is protected. Her father’s extreme parsimony and her fear of paternal disappointment evidently being stronger than her concern about meeting death are telling clues.
The second time in which fidelity to her character is achieved is while the aged, senile Lady Thatcher is receiving a medical exam. The doctor asks her how she feels. She responds with a blistering soliloquy about the modern emphasis on feelings and her lack of interest in such things. Rather, she states, she is much more intrigued by what people think. At that moment, I thought Ms. Streep had earned her Academy Award: her performance rang absolutely true.
The rest of the film, however, is a disappointment. As the makers say in the Special Features portion of the disc, they tried to stay away from political statements apart from a comment on the indignities of old age. Lady Thatcher is shown as a shrivelled, doddery old woman who isn’t at all recognisable on the streets, nor when she shops for a pint of milk and a copy of the Times. This is difficult to believe, as she remains one of the most photographed women ever to have lived. To be sure, the elderly are less visible, but that much?
Worse, the narrative takes place in the context of her dementia: memories are triggered by, say, the presence of a statuette of soldiers sitting on an end table. Perceiving this causes her to re-live the entire Falklands War, or rather, just a precis. The reminisces come as a near-incoherent flood, at best there is a procession, but little cause and effect. We are told the facts, but one of the most involving forms of narration is not to tell, but show. It would have been better, for example, for Mrs. Thatcher to have seen the poll tax rioters on television, and to be gripped by a moment of visible doubt, then right herself. No words need have been said, but it would have been a much more powerful representation of her character: it would have revealed something that is not shown in this film, an altogether human inconsistency. Without such qualities, we have no real thread of continuity from the shy, quite vulnerable young Margaret, to the steely mature one.
Jim Broadbent, a fine actor, is wasted. The Denis Thatcher of this film is almost a cardboard cutout of the man, precisely what he was portrayed as by the press: an amiable, if somewhat inebriated, fellow who had a touch of the buffoon about him. For example, after the bomb in Brighton goes off, he is, rather oddly, left holding his shoes. Surely there must have been more to him than this comic figure in order to appeal to someone of Lady Thatcher’s intellect and ambition; I recall reading in one of her books that she said of him, “What a man.” An elaboration of what brought on such an admiring phrase would have been apropos. Or was this statement a sop to someone weak and pliable? The film doesn’t say. Rather, we have a few cliched images of Young Denis and Young Margaret holding hands as they attend a performance of “The King and I” and the opera. When Denis proposes, young Margaret rather oddly and uncharacteristically bursts into tears.
The overall effect of the film is disappointingly paltry: it is like having cinema popcorn as a meal. There is a crunch, a flavour, but the substance is little more than air. In the special features, the makers of the film confess that Lady Thatcher is difficult to know, and hence Denis is there as the only person who truly understands her, even though the film is set after his death. But without understanding her, then it’s difficult to see how Denis’ place in her life could be accurately portrayed; Denis can’t act as a catalyst, he is far too inert. Now, the shades of night are falling on Lady Thatcher’s memory and she is receding into the shadows. I had hoped that “The Iron Lady” would cast some light on someone so consequential to our present time; I also hoped that it might show she failed in many instances by her own yardstick, e.g., I don’t believe she wanted people to get themselves deep into debt due to consumerism – this didn’t happen. More the pity: given this failure, we may never truly understand her, and thus the events whose repercussions are still all too felt in the present will also remain something of a mystery.