In The Iron Lady, the Margaret Thatcher biopic that opens this Friday, Meryl Streep makes the umpteenth extraordinary transformation of her career, uncannily inhabiting the facial expressions and vocal stylings of the former British prime minister. Unfortunately, the film itself is a shameful waste of Streep’s portrayal. A patchwork of luridly colored and jarringly noisy flashbacks, sometimes interspersed sloppily with historical footage, The Iron Lady goes into very little detail about the political conflicts Thatcher faced and the philosophy that motivated her. Instead, the film is obsessed with her mental health.
The Iron Lady’s framing device, in agonizingly long, 100 percent fictional scenes, depicts a present-day Thatcher haunted by hallucinations of her deeply loved and sorely missed late husband, Dennis (played by Jim Broadbent). The film revels in imagining a once-powerful woman at her most degraded, and its treatment of Thatcher approaches sadism. I’m all for representations of humanity and vulnerability on the screen, but a scene in which an elderly, nightgown-clad Thatcher stumbles into an imaginary meeting of her former colleagues, mumbling wildly, borders on farce, with the punch line at Thatcher’s expense. Knowing that the real Thatcher is still alive and not in the best of health makes it even more difficult to like the film.
Worse than the eagerness with which the film envisions an incapacitated Thatcher is the implication that the first female head of government* in the history of the Western world couldn’t possibly live without a man. It’s not news that Hollywood has a bad habit of painting women as man-obsessed—see every movie that fails the Bechdel test—but it’s frankly pathetic that it can’t even make an exception for a historical figure who led the United Kingdom for more than a decade. A biopic of a male politician depicting his central, life-defining struggle as his love for his wife would be universally derided as ludicrous.
Even leaving aside sexual politics, The Iron Lady’s framing device doesn’t work. Unlike films that use scenes from childhood to explain their protagonists’ raisons d’etre—a mechanism that’s tired but at least usually coherent—The Iron Lady gives us very little understanding of why Thatcher behaves the way she does. It’s implied that Thatcher was inspired by her mayor father, but neither this loosely drawn filial relationship nor any other expository part of the film gives us any hint about what imbued Thatcher with the resolve, ambition, and perhaps callousness that propelled her to premiership in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Instead of telling us anything about Thatcher’s internal life, the film’s framing device tells us about the erosion and eventual dissolution of that internal life. The Iron Lady isn’t a movie about Margaret Thatcher; it’s a movie about aging and dementia. I would rather have seen a movie about Margaret Thatcher.
Correction, Dec. 30, 2011: This post originally identified Margaret Thatcher as a head of state. She was a head of government; the queen is the head of state of the United Kingdom. (Return to the corrected sentence.)