Author: Vivien Reece
“The Iron Lady,” which is currently in theaters, fails to make sense of Margaret Thatcher’s complex life as a politician, woman, mother, wife and ultimately as a senior citizen with dementia. Cliché replaces originality and depth in plot, and thus the film reverts to subtle sexist themes rather than portraying Thatcher as a complicated, inspirational figure.
Meryl Streep, who is nominated for Best Actress at the 84 Academy Awards, plays her part admirably, but even superb acting cannot carry a film whose characterization of its main female character is unsophisticated, in that it represents a mere stock character rather than a more developed and authentic personality.
Outside of this film, portrayals of Margaret Thatcher in pop culture are virtually nonexistent. It comes as a surprise, then, that the film looks so closely at her life after leading Britain, rather than trying to enlighten the audience about her struggle for power.
One might think that the first cinematic rendering of Thatcher would focus more on her successes than her failures, especially given her endurance of particular difficulties as a result of her gender. This film, however, offers the audience a distinctly more negative and personal portrait of a great public figure.
Ironically, positive portraits of Thatcher in the cinema have never been seen before. One wonders why Hollywood is in such a hurry to undermine her greatness when, in contrast, most portrayals of powerful men seem to be more forgiving to their personal weaknesses.
This negativity manifests itself in the film’s focus on Thatcher’s struggles with dementia, rather than on her path to power. While this could have been an interesting opportunity to portray a difficult personal experience, the film instead attempts to cajole an ignorant audience by simplifying the pain of her mental illness to lonely, regretful conversations with her hallucination of a dead husband.
This portrayal makes light of both dementia and Thatcher’s significance as a political leader. In one scene, she hallucinates and hears her husband shouting at her, presumably representing her own regrets, not just her illness. He screams, “It’s ambition that’s got you this far—ambition! And the rest of us, me, the children, we can all go to hell!” The film simplifies this moment of fear and frustration to a discovery of personal regret—it appears that Thatcher herself wonders if she made mistakes and was too ambitious throughout her life.
This line occurs at a climactic moment in the film, implying that Thatcher’s greatest failure as a human being was to be an imperfect wife and mother, without closely examining her politics or other nuances of her personality. This scene implies that despite Thatcher’s political success, she was a failure of a human being because of her shortcomings as a family woman. It is also offensive because it reduces the complexity of dementia to the mere common human experience of regret.
Audiences may feel inclined to support the film despite its failure to provide an artistic, deep and original analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s life because of its dependable star, Meryl Streep. She does a wonderful job of breathing energy and more importantly dignity into an unfairly written character. Yet despite her best effort, intelligent movie-goers will find it difficult not to roll their eyes at the clichés and simplistic characterizations in the film.
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