The film opens with the most fragile, soft-spoken, elderly woman buying milk at a corner deli. She is shocked by the price. Following her home, we realize soon enough that she is not only fragile, but very dependent. The woman has dementia and keeps herself afloat by imagining her life is as it once was. Her history -her unique view of the world-is the only thing she has to hold on to: her husband is alive, her children are young, and she is important. This is Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
Critics have cut into this soft portrayal, saying that sympathy cannot come so easily to a woman who left her country in shambles. Should she not pay, in name, for her misgivings? The popular opinion seems to be that her biopic should have been less intimate and more critical of the life lived. What filmmaker Phyllida Lloyd did, however, is much more subversive. Lloyd gave us Thatcher raw and vulnerable.
Lloyd imagines her on screen at the doctor’s office in a blue paper gown, standing up for decade-old decisions she made about medical coverage and, still more wrenching, dreaming of running the Conservative Party as she butters toast, while her husband storms out of the kitchen. Somewhere between the private circumstances and public action, the imagined and what was logically deducted from real life, the character of Margaret Thatcher was all at once sympathetic and emphatically stringent of emotion. Her deeds led to rot (as two generations of British citizens can personally attest to), but her intentions stemmed from her own humble beginnings. No one can make a case for Thatcher’s empathy- she did not have it in good use. Still, Lloyd was not so far off base when she brought Streep -with a high pitched voice and pretty, chilly features- into the mix as a softer, outspoken, and older version of the woman so many people called a monster. Contradictions only exist where there is no imagination to fill in the blank spots, and Thatcher is considered a woman of many “contradictions”. Lloyd’s storytelling fills in the blanks brilliantly.
“Don’t ask me what I’m feeling, ask me what I’m thinking.” The value of thought is emphasized as a heartfelt commodity to Thatcher at various stages of her life. She did not make decisions based on her guts, she made them based on facts. This may have been why the male public and her male officers had so much faith in her to begin with. Likewise, they all learned that it was her weakness. Feeling and thinking, together, permit the natural checks and balances between the personal and political to be sorted. Thatcher may not have been out of tune with the price of milk or butter, but she never did connect to the heartache associated with not having any money for milk or butter (or a house). “A grocer’s daughter, indeed” as one official in the film puts it. She may have been of humble beginnings, but she was certainly not as poor as people were when she was in power. Thatcher was hated because she did things without feeling, not thinking. Streep plays her with great strength of character and accentuates her flirtation with normalcy (marriage, child-rearing, feminine presentation) as well as her thirst for ambition, which made her seem strikingly aloof.
The scenes from her youth are too short and her middle years feel rushed as well, but the older Thatcher is well-developed on screen. It is beautiful to see a biopic piece about a female leader brought to life, with the emphasis on her later years. Lloyd’s work is admirable for its feminist qualities as well as the humanity she brings to a formerly (realistically) dreadful decision-maker of the 20th Century.