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Film Review: The Iron Lady

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No. No. No.

Lady Thatcher, now in her dotage and diminished by mental infirmity, is an interesting counterpoint to the Thatcher myth – the projection of strength and certainty. One can understand why a filmmaker would start there and work backwards. However, we have to ask why Lloyd and Morgan are so preoccupied with this period in Thatcher’s life. It feels like a confidence trick, designed to wring sympathy from the audience; the subject pre-judged to be unsympathetic.

This is a betrayal not of the woman but the material. The pathos in Thatcher’s story isn’t to be found in a confused old lady having a conversation with her dead husband, or walking unnoticed into a corner shop and being visibly shocked at the price of a pint of milk, it’s watching her friends and colleagues being murdered by the I.R.A, it’s surviving an assassination attempt, it’s delivering three election victories then being ousted by an organised coup from within her own party. That’s the meat of the story and these are the incidents that get mentioned in passing. Lloyd and Morgan don’t dive in so much as skip a stone across a lake.

There’s no moral argument to be made; this is art. The filmmakers must explore their subject using whatever emphasis they deem to be of interest, but their choices court irrelevance. Dickens, in his essay Night Walks noted the similarities between insanity and the dreams of the sane. “Are not the sane and the insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming?” he asked, and you might think that what we get here are Thatcher’s waking dreams – bleeds from the past, visions of Dennis; but is such mawkish emphasis useful in understanding the life being dramatised? Is it not a whimsical treatment of a famously serious public figure? It may be a comment on the passage of time and its effect on the individual but it doesn’t help us understand this individual.

Ironically the film’s misjudged emphasis is illuminated using the very words Morgan puts into Thatcher’s mouth. In the early portion of the film a fragile Maggie tells her Doctor that she’s never cared about how people feel. What’s important, she says, is what people think; thoughts, ideas, and their impact on people’s actions, this is what keeps the healthy part of her brain engaged. This recalls an aside levelled at a houseguest a few scenes earlier in which Streep as Thatcher notes, “politics used to be about doing something, now it’s about trying to be someone.” If such sentiments had characterised this narrative, the film would have assumed the perspective of its subject. It would have been honest rather than fanciful.

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Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd

Country: UK/France

Year: 2011

Running Time: 105 mins


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