Friday, January 20, 2012

The Iron Lady

“It used to be about trying to DO something. Now it’s about trying to BE someone,” sneers The Iron Lady’s Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) of our changing social values. She’s right, of course, but the irony of The Iron Lady is that it’s a textbook example of that trend.

Not that examples are hard to come by. Celebrities who are famous just because they look good in the spotlight aren’t anything new (remember the Gabor sisters?), but for the last 10 years or so they’ve been multiplying like flu victims in Contagion, with Paris Hilton in the Gwyneth Paltrow role. A few of the reality shows that dominate network TV ratings are built around people who can actually do something extraordinary: How amazing is it when those contestants on Project Runway make stylish outfits out of office supplies? But mostly, we watch reality shows not because of what their stars can do but because of who they are and how they behave—-or, better yet, misbehave.

Our political process has been thoroughly infected too. Depending on where you get your news, you can easily hear more about Newt Gingrich’s marital history or Barack Obama’s birth certificate than about either man’s politics. Films like J. Edgar mirror that trend, treating powerful political figures as if the most important thing about them is who they did or didn’t sleep with.

I didn’t agree with the real Thatcher about much, but I’m with the film’s Thatcher in her disgust at this development. I don’t know whether it’s a contributing factor or just a symptom, but it’s clearly part of the bread-and-circuses sideshows that keep us safely distracted while our political system becomes an almost wholly owned subsidiary of a handful of multinational conglomerates.

And so Thatcher, a rock-ribbed conservative who transformed Britain’s economy, for better or worse, is presented in The Iron Lady as a pitiably vulnerable widow who’s missing great chunks of her memory and carrying on elaborate imaginary conversations with her recently deceased husband, Denis (an impish Jim Broadbent).

True, she revisits some of the triumphs and trials of her ascent to the position of Britain’s first female prime minister and her three terms in office in the flashbacks that alternate with her dreary present, but those highlights are sketched out so vaguely they amount to “a shorthand that resembles a chronologically scrambled British version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” (Miners’ strike/Falklands War/I can’t take it any more ....),” as the New York Times A.O. Scott puts it.

Yes, Streep is astonishingly good, as always. She captures Thatcher’s what-me-worry gaze and tight smile, the determined tilt of her head, and her breathy but authoritative voice. She also creates a charismatic character who you believe in every moment that she’s on the screen, whether as an young woman jousting with her pugnacious peers in Parliament or as a confused elder doddering about her house while her caregivers gossip about her in the background. But how closely does that character resemble the real Thatcher? And more to the point, why should we care?

The Queen used the battle royale between Princess Di and Queen Elizabeth to make a point about British culture. In that film, Queen Elizabeth’s reserve and stoicism, which had been so quintessentially English when she was a girl and for generations before, had been rejected by the bulk of her countrymen by the time the openly emotional, self-pitying princess pled her case in the court of public opinion, giving their fight the feel of a battle for the soul of Britain. Similarly, The Last King of Scotland focuses on Idi Amin’s mental instability in order to shed light on the film’s real subject: the terror that distorted all aspects of life in Uganda during Amin’s despotic reign.

But The Iron Lady fails to give us any coherent sense of what Thatcher did or how her actions affected daily life in Britain. Now and then, like when someone blames the unions and someone else blames her conservative government for the strikes that crippled Britain during her first few years in office, we get a passing glimpse of the controversy that surrounded the prime minister for most of her regime. But the film never comes down on one side or the other or these debates, or gives us enough information to reach our own conclusions.

Instead, it stays myopically focused on her private life, as if the most important about Thatcher’s political career was how it affected her family, not her country. When the camera focuses on Thatcher’s sensible pumps in a sea of men’s shoes at the House of Commons, or we watch her drive resolutely off to Parliament while her young children trot after the car and beg her to stay home, The Iron Lady could be a Lifetime feature about the trials of a working mom.

This is a hollow film with a great performance trapped inside it, ricocheting off the walls with noplace to go.

Written for TimeOff

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