The new film “The Iron Lady,” starring Meryl Streep as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, initially presented the left-leaning filmmakers with a quandary: how to put forth an Oscar-worthy portrayal without simultaneously honoring a revered icon of the right. They seem to have solved it by making this film about a feminist icon, not a conservative one.
Due for wide release in the U.S. this month, “The Iron Lady” depicts Thatcher’s professional and personal rise and decline, from provincial grocer’s daughter to the top of the political order and back down again to – as the film portrays it – lonely and doddering irrelevance. Along the way we see her confrontation with powerful trade union strikers, forceful defense of free markets, persistence in the face of sexist derision from her political peers, triumph in the 1982 Falklands war, and Churchillian refusal to appease IRA terrorists (looking over that list makes me wish Ms. Thatcher had been our president for the last 3 years…).
The film features Streep, the most Oscar-nominated actress in history, in the role of a lifetime which will surely earn her another Oscar nod. It has been as polarizing as the extraordinary Iron Lady herself. Some critics have given it – or at least Ms. Streep – glowing reviews, while others, and some of Thatcher’s family and former friends and colleagues, have called it an unkind portrayal. One friend of the family said, prior to the film’s release, that Thatcher’s children were “appalled at what they have learnt about the film. They think it sounds like some left-wing fantasy.”
Norman Tebbit, an advisor who worked closely with Thatcher for eight years and who complains that the filmmakers didn’t reach out to him and others who really knew her, wrote in the UK’s Telegraph Online that “she was never, in my experience, the half-hysterical, over-emotional, over-acting woman portrayed by Meryl Streep.”
But some on the left feel the film does not go far enough in its unkindness toward England’s modern-day Boadicea. As Stuart Jeffries wrote in the British left-wing The Guardian online, her time was an “era of rage about what Thatcher, economy destroyer and warmonger, was doing to Britain… It will be a shame if ‘The Iron Lady’ overlooks that deep anger in favour of exclusive focus on Thatcher as a woman triumphing against the odds.”
And yet that is the focus the filmmakers gave it. Streep and British director Phyllida Lloyd, who have both stated that “The Iron Lady” is “King Lear for girls,” have made it less about Thatcher’s bold conservatism and very much about “a woman who smashed through the barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male-dominated world.”
Streep and Lloyd are not, after all, conservative. “I still don’t agree with a lot of her policies,” said Streep diplomatically. “But I feel she believed in them and that they came from an honest conviction, and that she wasn’t a cosmetic politician just changing make-up to suit the times.” As for those policies: in an interview, Streep said, laughing,
We’re not interested in King Lear’s politics. We’re not saying we would have voted for him… What interested me was [playing] the part of someone who does monstrous things maybe, or misguided things.
Monstrous things? Misguided? That’s a rather blatant giveaway as to how Streep views the female Lear’s politics and legacy. Director Lloyd described her goal with this project in a similar vein:
In parts of England now it’s a transgression even to consider her as a human being. She’s that monster woman, the she-devil. For me the point of the film was to find the human side.
Though she did not vote for Thatcher, Lloyd cheered when a woman finally came to power in England: “It felt like one for our team.” Streep, too, remembers a thrill running up her leg:
I did the same thing. We all thought if it can happen in England – class-bound, socially rigid, homophobic — if they can elect a female leader over there, then it’s just seconds away in America.
Hold on – did Streep just call the English homophobic? And socially calcified? These aren’t the kinds of comments that make for a successful promotional tour. But more and more often, many in Hollywood forget themselves and reveal contempt for their socially unenlightened audiences.
Of course, feminists ordinarily do not embrace Thatcher, despite her political trailblazing. Her rejection “even from feminists,” says Streep, seems to “have something to do with our profound… discomfort with women in power. Or our terror of it.” No, the feminist rejection of Thatcher has everything to do with her conservatism, because feminists are profoundly discomforted and in terror of conservative women who more successfully embody the feminist ideal of “having it all” than do self-proclaimed feminists themselves.
Film critic and libertarian Kurt Loder claims that “the movie has no apparent partisan agenda. It presents the good and the bad (depending on one’s political orientation).” But he does note that the film’s completely invented sequences of “the doddering Iron Lady in retirement,” succumbing to dementia and imagining conversations with her dead husband, are “jarringly unpleasant” and distasteful.
And therein lies the other way in which this film downplays or even undermines Thatcher’s place in history as a conservative legend. As a “King Lear for girls,” “the story concerns power and the price that is paid for power,” as the press release states. And that price for Thatcher is, according to the film, loneliness, mental decay, nightmares, and haunting regret.
“There have been people who have seen the movie and were fully aghast, who would have liked it to be a triumphalist saga,” Ms. Streep said. Yes, heaven forbid that Hollywood depict a conservative world leader as politically triumphant (imagine a Hollywood bio-pic about a national leader they unreservedly admire, even worship – say, Obama; would it be anything but a triumphalist saga?).
Some are unconcerned about the film’s impact. It “is a non-event,” dismisses Lord Tim Bell, one of Thatcher’s key PR advisers. “It won’t make any difference to her place in history.” Unfortunately, he underestimates the power of Hollywood to shape the perception of entire generations who, thanks to the left’s domination of our educational system, don’t know much about history.
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