The Iron Lady, a film by Phyllida Lloyd, unleashes a steady stream of emotional manipulation from the onset. The opening sequence depicts a feeble, elderly woman in a convenience store perusing pints of milk. The prices baffle her, the environment unsteadies her, and the patrons generally put her off. She wanders back home where she has a benign breakfast with her hubby (Jim Broadbent). A younger woman, presumably a caretaker, opens the door to the kitchen. With that, the portrait of domesticity is sullied by a glimpse into the elderly woman’s reality: She is Margaret Thatcher and her husband is deceased.
The film makes it very clear that the “Iron Lady” is now quite rusted. Thatcher (Meryl Streep) is forgetful. She hallucinates. She heavily drinks. She holds onto the past not only because it represents a time of vim and vigor, but because it is the only reality that suits her. She was a lady in power. Her husband was alive, her wardrobe was impeccably coordinated, and her biting wit put misogynist parliament members in their place. Even if the film was not delivered as a personal retrospective, one could easily understand why Thatcher’s past trumped her present.
The main function of the personal restrospective device, as I alluded to earlier, is to make viewers drown in pathos. The Iron Lady is not a direct portrayal of Thatcher’s controversial policies, her extended stint as Prime Minister, or even her general career. Those function as mere supplements to the base story. One could see this as a smart move on behalf of the filmmakers. After all, not many people (especially Brits) are eager to sympathize with Thatcher as a political figure. However, it would seem many people are eager to sympathize with Thatcher as an ailing woman in her twilight years.
The eagerness of viewer sympathy may have a little something to do with casting. I have been critical of The Iron Lady up until this point, but I simply cannot find fault in the choice of Meryl Streep as the lead. There’s a reason she won the Oscar: she nailed her performance. Whether she was depicting the bold, passionate leader of yesteryear or the hollow, confused lady of the present, Streep truly embodied the role. I feel like I can speak for a lot of folks when I say she made me care about a figure I knew very little about, a figure I more than likely would not have cared for otherwise. I reluctantly praise that ability in filmmakers; I willingly praise that ability in actors.