I saw Iron Lady (I’ve had to continually check myself to make sure I don’t accidentally type Iron Maiden) on opening night so I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to blog about it. Actually, I kind of do. I thought the biopic of Margaret Thatcher so brilliant I didn’t know how to describe it without slipping into those breathless, gushy clichés that Meryl Streep is magnificent as the whisky-swilling, pearl-wearing, tea-pouring former first lady of Britain (and when I say ‘first lady’ I mean first by democratically elected power and not by marriage).
You know, the ones where you follow every other reviewer’s lead and discuss the hair, the make-up, and the mannerisms that were nailed perfectly. The ones where you talk about how she’s ‘an actor’s actor’ and how she ‘inhabits’ a character so fully you can’t possibly imagine anyone ever reprising that role, ever. Not even the original, flesh-and-blood person themselves.
After all, Streep (and the hair and make-up artists who worked on her) subtly but exceptionally nailed the hair, the make-up, the teeth, the mouth, and the expressions right down to the nuances. Even the way the prosthetic slippage late in the film (eerily) mirrored the way a face shifts and sags with age.
The other reason I haven’t blogged about this film is that I don’t actually feel authoritative enough to comment on it—these events unfolded largely in and around the year I was born. I’m not trying to say that I’m ‘too young’, but I am saying that I viewed this film, its events, and its context with a detached, sort of insider–outsider perspective plus an I-should-know-more-about-this shame. Unlike most of the baby-boomer audience members around me, I had no prior opinions of Thatcher or her reign.
My main understanding of her—and that the ‘iron’ in the title alludes to—was her steely, unflinching, vice-like grip on the nation. So I thought it an interesting and deliberately softening choice of a framing device to show not the woman people they thought they knew, but the woman we definitely didn’t; or rather, given her enigmatic nature, the woman we know even less than the woman we don’t know.
The film opens with an aged but still-proud Thatcher buying a pint of milk and wincing at the cost of it. Things have changed. She’s ignored at the counter by an iPod-brandishing youth whose music’s so loud it escapes his headphones and works as the scene’s tinny, poor-manners-highlighting soundtrack. It’s an unusual but effective wedge into the story and cements it in a modern setting while showing us the film will most definitely be looking back. It also shows Thatcher as elderly, frail, slightly confused, and largely out of her comfort zone. In essence, that small, mundane moment simply but powerfully sets the scene for the rest of the film.
Her slightly muddled flashbacks to past events, both personal and political, show not a woman completely guilt-free or comfortable with all of her decisions, but one who was torn then and who remains so. Her long-dead husband’s periodic appearances make her question her sanity and recollections, and she and we try to determine which parts of the tale are true. That too is clever, as the technique shows hole-picking cynics there’s no one truth and that perspective and accuracy are often a matter of memory and perspective.
I was surprised by both the relative absence of stock footage in the film (you’d have thunk there’d be a bunch) and the large number of cameos of high-calibre actors. Iron Lady was apparently a small-budget film (small by Hollywood blockbuster standards, at least), but anyone who was anyone walked on screen, especially male actors, who played her cabinet ministers and foes.
I also felt fairly sorry for Thatcher. She was imperfect and an occasional bully, no doubt, but I also think she was a career woman in a time when high-powered careers for women weren’t the norm. She was both Britain’s longest-serving prime minister and its first female one, and I was struck by how momentous this was when I realised we in Australia only achieved that 18 months ago, some 30 years later.
Thatcher was also (I’d argue through societal pressures) sidetracked into being a mother. It was a role she never quite fit and the fallout with her daughter was painful to watch. Iron Lady might be a fictionalised account of Thatcher’s life, but it is based on real events, and I find it hard to believe that the real-life woman was devoid of any maternal instinct. I think she was instead an early victim to the belief that women can have it all.
But I digress. This blog is a lot of words long considering I didn’t know what to write to say that Iron Lady is a well-wrought film in which Streep delivers a stellar performance. Here’s hoping that in writing this I steered marginally clear of all the usual clichés.