During her tenure as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was one of the most recognizable and powerful figures in the world. But does "The Iron Lady" (and not just Meryl Streep's spot-on portrayal) do the woman justice? Father Steve investigates, today, on the Word on Fire blog.
Margaret are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?...
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder…
—Gerard Manley Hopkins
Margaret Thatcher (the actual, pictured at right) was prime minister of Great Britain from 1979 until 1990, but her career as a politician started much earlier in life, and her influence extended far beyond the mountains and shores of England’s green and pleasant land. Born in 1925 the daughter of a grocer, she experienced her nation’s darkest hour during World War II and savored its victory over the Axis tyranny.
Elected to Parliament in 1959, she was the member of an elite minority—being one of a few pioneering women who held public office. Appointed Secretary of Education and Science, she was tempered like steel during one of the most culturally tumultuous periods in not only England's history, but that of the modern West. Her bid to be leader of the Conservative Party was successful, and in 1979 she became the first female prime minister of Her Majesty’s Government. During her time in office, she was as recognizable a symbol of her country as Queen Elizabeth II.
Thatcher never provoked a middling or lukewarm response to either her politics or her person- you loved her or hated her, agreed with her totally or disagreed with her vehemently. I spent some time over the weekend watching video clips of her presentations to Parliament and nearly had an anxiety attack imagining what it must have been like to debate her. The Soviet Defense Ministry newspaper “Red Star” gave her the nickname “Iron Lady”- they meant it as a negative appraisal of her character. She was flattered, accepted the moniker, and the name stuck.
“The Iron Lady” features Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. It is not so much a biography of Thatcher, nor is it best described as either a paen or an elegy. In fact, it is hard to describe what this film means to say about Margaret Thatcher. More about that later. I first want to acknowledge that, as one might expect, the performances in this movie are outstanding, and I imagine the actors will receive high honors (Streep already has a Golden Globe for her efforts).
But as captivating as Streep’s performance is, it also may be the reason for the movie’s weakness. At times it is more interesting to watch Streep nail her impersonation of Thatcher than attend to the film’s narrative. Which raises the question, is “The Iron Lady” the story of how convincing Streep is at imitating Margaret Thatcher, or is it the story of the former prime minister of Great Britain? I don’t know if the creators of or the actors in “The Iron Lady” were able to make up their mind about this distinction. Streep is one of the leading actresses of our time, and I am sure that there are many people who would go to see a movie just to see the presentation of her craft, but the more interesting life belongs to the real Margaret Thatcher, not Streep’s imitation (sorry Meryl).
The film presents Margaret Thatcher’s story in flashbacks that are vexing the mind of the now elderly Baroness who is suffering from dementia. This is an interesting approach to Thatcher’s narrative, but what can the audience trust about the story when it is presented as the hazy recollections of Thatcher’s addled mind? It also seemed that much of the Prime Minister’s life is cast as a story of her opposition to this or that, a dialectic that usually culminates in scenes of people rioting. Did she do more than just cause trouble or provoke consternation? Thatcher was re-elected to the leadership of her party and her country multiple times and given this I do think that perhaps something more constructive was going on other than panic in the streets.
I can understand the predicament the makers of “The Iron Lady” faced. Thatcher’s life is so inextricably tied to the great events of modern history that it is hard to abstract her person from the times in which she was immersed. Also, her impact was such that whether you think her an angel or a devil, one cannot deny that it was not only the age that made Margaret Thatcher, but that she was integral in making the age.
But the approach to her story in the film left this viewer with the impression that Thatcher’s life and legacy were things best consigned to forgetfulness, and I think that this would be a mistake. Whatever you make of Thatcher and her politics, her life is one that is worthwhile to remember and has something significant to teach us. Evidently the makers of the film eschewed a heroic approach to their subject in preference for something that would be more humanizing and personal, but the end result seems a diminishment of Margaret Thatcher herself. The audience might as well be watching a film about the decline that accompanies anyone, man or woman, as they grow older. Further, what is interesting about Thatcher’s life is not how she is just like everyone else, but that her story is different and therefore worth remembering and telling.
But maybe the creators of “The Iron Lady” really don’t see Thatcher’s life as something they want remembered and told, and really do prefer that future generations would bypass her cultural significance, allowing her to fade away, much the way Thatcher’s memories are fading in the film. If that is the case, then the movie at its best becomes a poignant presentation of the experience of growing old and losing—not only the former concerns that defined one’s earlier life, but everything that went along with that life—careers, friends, lovers, family, husbands, and for some, even children.
Early in the movie a newly engaged Margaret warns Denis (her husband-to-be) that he can only expect her to be a different kind of wife, one who would not be wasting her days with her hands in a sink washing tea cups. Such is the idealism of youth! We believe that our projects and plans will exempt us from the banalities of real life. We are meant for more exciting things! Thus we are and so we believe, and it is usually true at least for a while. But like Margaret Thatcher at the end of the movie, we inevitably end up with our hands in a sink, or limited to the confines of ever smaller rooms, our lives contracting along with our expectations, sifting through what once was and will never be again.
Our lives may never be as geopolitically important as Margaret Thatcher’s, but what we do share in common is that the burdens of time will take the same toll on us as they have on her. In this respect, “The Iron Lady” is an excellent “memento mori.” However, if you are looking to understand Margaret Thatcher, you may have to look elsewhere.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.