To Know Her Is To Love Her…”The Iron Lady” Gets It Half-Right

The Iron Lady is opening in theaters this weekend.
Before you go check out the movie, The Heritage Foundation released this short documentary on the real legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

From the Video: Like President Ronald Reagan, her political soulmate, Margaret Thatcher came to power at a desperate time in her country’s history, when real leadership and bold ideas were most needed. And by applying conservative principles to the challenges she faced, she was able to achieve real and lasting success. Then, as today, she faced an extraordinary set of challenges and a chorus of voices saying her country’s best days were behind it. Thatcher’s successes are a comforting reminder of the power of a bold, conservative vision at work.

The Iron Lady Movie Review by Jonathan Matthew Gilbert
(Jonathan Matthew Gilbert is a gay Republican southern musical theatre writer who now lives in upper Manhattan with two cats. www.twitter.com/theofficialjmg)

Having spent the past several years writing an opera about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, I was both skeptical and excited when Phyllida Lloyd’s new film “The Iron Lady” was announced, starring Meryl Streep as the conservative icon. Skeptical because of the personal politics of Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan, but excited because regardless of her own politics, Ms. Streep tends to show enormous respect for the characters she plays. The resulting film demonstrates as much, though certainly is not without flaws.

Ms. Streep’s commanding performance anchors “The Iron Lady” (with support from Jim Broadbent as Thatcher’s husband Dennis and Olivia Colman as their daughter Carol), which presents itself as a memory play and therein lies the biggest flaw. Set in the present, Mrs. Thatcher has finally resolved to discard her late husband’s belongings and each item brings up memories of their fifty-plus years together. We are shown in flashbacks how they met during her first campaign, and their courtship is presented (accurately, I believe) as something both loving and pragmatic for Margaret’s career. Dennis stands by as she rises through the ranks of the Conservative Party, battling liberals who despise her politics and conservatives who disdain her background as a grocer’s daughter, eventually becoming the nation’s first (and to date, only) female Prime Minister. Because of the nature of the film, though, events happen out of sequence and many significant moments are rushed or ignored completely. The Queen is not referenced at all, and the Soviets only once despite Thatcher going on to win the Cold War alongside Ronald Reagan (blink and you’ll miss him, too). The Falkland Islands War, when Thatcher truly became the Iron Lady, is handled well but her future battles with the unions, the Europeans, and own party are rushed to bring the film to a swift conclusion. Far too little time is spent on the historical moments and far too much on the present, where the filmmakers rely on unconfirmed rumors and speculation to present (lovingly, it can at least be said) an 86 year old Thatcher who is not always clear on the fact that her husband is dead and that she’s not in charge anymore.

The film’s Margaret Thatcher is a woman of immense conviction, occasional humor, and even compassion—in private moments, we see her truly agonizing over writing to the mothers of dead soldiers. The politics behind her convictions, however, are rarely explored and it is impossible to separate Margaret Thatcher from what she believed. Either out of fear of Hollywood criticism or because her views differed so greatly from theirs, the filmmakers chose to avoid the subject entirely. This, combined with a handful of historical inaccuracies (the British do not “run” for office, they “stand,” Margaret Thatcher was not on the scene when her campaign manager Airey Neave was assassinated by Irish terrorists, etc) left me as irritated with the overall film as I was delighted with Ms. Streep’s total inhabitation of Thatcher. Her performance alone makes the film worth seeing, but I found myself wondering if I would be able to follow the plot had I not spent the past several years studying the subject.

“The Iron Lady” is an admirable attempt to explore a woman worthy of exploration but at best it is merely a portrait. And hopefully, an invitation to explore further. I wish the filmmakers had done so. They clearly feel great admiration for the woman; it’s a shame they didn’t get to know the leader.

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