Wet Socks and an Iron Lady
Thanks to some rain and a bad pair of shoes, I was pretty cold throughout The Iron Lady. That seemed appropriate, though, at least at first, given the dreary British landscape and political history I thought I was going to witness. Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher! Dowdy British men fighting against women in power! So much combustible character and plot backed by grayed out London fog and maybe something about the Berlin Wall falling. Sky’s the limit on a biopic about someone who was in politics for more than 30 years.
Going in, I didn’t know much about Thatcher and her brand of politics. I grew up mainly after she was left power in 1990, so I thought this would be a good way to get an idea of what British politics had been like in a fairly interesting time period. The Soviets, the Falklands/Malvinas War, the economic bust-then-boom of the 80s. Those things I have a decent grasp on (thank you, college survey courses), but the inner workings of Thatcher’s cabinet and personal life, no, I didn’t know anything about that.
Nor did I know anything about director Phyllida Lloyd, who apparently also did Mama Mia! (thank you, Internet) and is mainly a theater director. The Iron Lady is her second directorial role in movies, but she’s got scores of theater productions under her belt. I don’t know if that had much to do with it and I haven’t seen Mamma Mia!, but if I’m going to boil down this movie to just one word, it would definitely be montage.
I waited patiently throughout the movie for the thing to get going, for the movie to start, but instead was treated to few actual scenes and basically no information other than “this scene is later in history than the previous one, perhaps you should move on too.” Lots of music overlaid on ever-changing political scenes that weren’t explained. Who’s this guy? Doesn’t matter because now he’s dead (IRA claims responsibility, but don’t bother asking who the IRA is or why there’s footage of people rioting). Who’s that guy? Doesn’t matter because now he’s fired.
Here’s the movie: Opening scene where she’s old and pretty batty (conversing with a hallucination of her dead husband, Denis), remembers being young and listening to her father give political speeches, gets in to Oxford, is apparently done with Oxford and now a lawyer, is defeated in a party run that was never mentioned before and is proposed to by Denis who you barely know, is elected to Parliament and finds out it’s an old boys’ club to the point that it has no women’s bathroom (just a chair and an ironing board), is shouted at by men, is suddenly in the Cabinet as Education Secretary, is elected Prime Minister, does Prime Ministerial stuff, is deposed, is old. THE END.
There are a lot more old and batty scenes thrown in there in between other ones and they’re basically the only reason to watch the movie. Old Margaret, the one who drinks too much whiskey and thinks everything is an IRA bomb plot while talking to Denis even in front of others, is charming, interesting, grandmotherly. She’s lost everything. But you never really get a sense, through the other scenes, that she was ever anything else. You never get to meet her son, Mark, just her daughter, Carol, who didn’t move to South Africa. Why does she love the affable Denis? Why does he love her? Why does anyone vote for her? Who is she?
Basically, I know precious little more about Thatcher than I did going in. I know she was born to a greengrocer and that that is something one would look down upon in 1960s British political society. I also know she wore (and presumably still wears) a lot of blue. You never see the Soviets; you see Reagan for all of 2 seconds dancing around the stage; and the Falklands War, where the movie finally pauses a little from its helter-skelter run through time, is her staring at a map and saying “sink it!” in harsh tones and then writing letters to the families of the KIA with teary-eyed solemnity.
Then she resigns and is no longer in office and Denis apparently died and Mark moved to South Africa. Did you Mark was a rally car driver and got lost in the desert for 6 days in 1982? You didn’t if you didn’t read up on him somewhere else even though maybe that would have been mentioned in a regular biopic. Did you know Denis was a millionaire when he met Margaret (or that he was previously married to a different woman named Margaret)? Not surprising.
All of these terrible things don’t take away from just how damned good Meryl Streep is, though. She’s incredible. She turns old, batty Margaret into a fairly compelling character and in the few scenes she’s allowed to do anything, she does a good job of capturing some of the nuances that are spelled out (change your voice, Margaret, you’ll sound more commanding!) while maintaining some sort of humanity in the pained looks she gives the back of her husband as he walks out of the room after calling her, basically, a stubborn mule.
I say don’t bother with this movie, even if you love Meryl Streep, but it probably won’t stop some people from going out and wasting their money on an hour and a half montage of men in suits and a woman in blue who wears pearl kind of yelling about politics they never explain. And maybe I got pneumonia from the wet shoes part too.
This is a guest spot by Isaiah Cambron. You can find more of his writing at barcelonafootballblog.com