Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are voting for conservatives. This week they almost forget why Margaret Thatcher was so awful in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady.
Hey, Henry, imagine if Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher hooked up with Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar Hoover: they’d have some insanely paranoid, insatiably power-hungry, infuriatingly clean and proper, quasi-incestuously adoring kids, don’t you think? Just as Clint Eastwood posited Edgar’s closeness to his mother as one of the catalysts for his closeted, Commie-outing career, Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan suggest that Maggie’s union-busting, Argentina-fighting, immigrant-distrusting dynasty was sparked in large part by her reverence for her grocery store owner father. Whereas Eastwood’s Hoover sought to conceal his more feminine or effete traits, Lloyd’s Thatcher constantly has to balance the masculine bravado demanded by her political career with her increasingly marginal domestic duties. Streep manages this tightrope walk just as well as you’d expect her to, punctuating Maggie’s cool severity with tactical motherly deployments—as when she asserts her familiarity with the plight of her increasingly displeased people by naming the prices of various dairy products, or tells her cabinet-members to suck in their guts for a group photo. Henry, what did you make of The Iron Lady‘s portrayal of Thatcher as Founding Mother of modern England?
Ben, the connection I made to J. Edgar was that both movies are about a mean and miserable old person looking to justify their poor choices—to vindicate themselves in the sure-to-be-unkind eyes of history. But those are probably just my own anti-Thatcher biases at work, eh? The movie actually seems pretty sympathetic to Lady Ironsides, which I would imagine has something to do with the unusual number of women involved in its production: director, writer, and superstar, ladies all. This is a movie about the experience of being a Western woman in the 20th century, trying to achieve more than your mother would have been allowed to, confronting and overcoming society’s pervasive boy’s club mentality. And the filmmakers kind of love Thatcher for everything she accomplished; remember her epic exit walk when she steps down as prime minister? In slow motion, to some Romantic aria, across a floor strewn with rose petals? Or how she totally doesn’t die while washing that tea cup? The Iron Lady is more interested in the effects of her ambition on her family, a look at the loneliness that accompanies power—that sort of thing—than in the social effects of her policies, which are vaguely summed up by video images of people protesting. Though I suppose the movie does also make several stabs at contemporary political relevance. Did you think so?
You’re right, Henry, The Iron Lady is very reluctant to throw Maggie under the bus. We see her outmaneuver her male colleagues during the fight over the Falkland Islands in one of this scatter-brained film’s most extensive chapters, but her infamous crushing of the miners’ strike is dealt with rather summarily—presumably to make the quasi-feminist tone more palatable. A more thorough exploration of that moment in Maggie’s career might’ve made for a poignant acknowledgment of today’s protests rooted in class-based inequity. As such the film’s use of archival footage of rioting in London streets, often paired with images of the Thatchermobile surrounded by angry citizens banging on its windows, seems aimed at evoking this summer’s racially-charged riots throughout the UK. The opening scene, of Maggie buying milk at an Indian-run deli, did plenty to illustrate her anxiety over Britain’s changed complexion even if, again, racist rhetoric and policies during her career remained unmentioned. Those scenes set in the more recent past, just after the London bombings in 2005, were the film’s most successful I thought. They complicated the flashbacks’ more conventional portrayals of Britishness, don’t you think Henry? (Also, the last Oscarbait-y biopic co-starring an imaginary frenemy did really well; what did you think of that narrative contrivance here?)
So many questions, Ben! Those scenes of Maggie as an old lady were my favorite, too: that contrast between coarse modernity (hip-hop ringtones!) and her hoary decorum—the prime minister past her prime. As for narrative contrivance, well, the whole movie is pretty contrived: its easy psychology, its simple flashback structure that lets it hurry past all points biopic. It often felt a little too caught up in the historical at the expense of the personal, didn’t you think? Like, they could have lingered on the car-bomb assassination of Airey Neave a bit longer. But what really needled me about this movie, Ben? Its fucking Anglophilia! I don’t mean to come off like some Brit basher, week after week bemoaning Hollywood’s hard-on for the UK, but all these American movies fetishizing English royalty (or in this case, “royalty”) really irk me. I blame all those old people who made The King’s Speech an Oscar winner. Harvey Weinstein obviously was trying to repeat that success here; there’s even a speech-therapy scene in this movie! But then Harvey must have seen the final cut, realized that, despite the occasionally poetic direction, it was a clunker (between this and Shame, I’m not a fan of Abi Morgan; I wasn’t crazy about the episode of The Hour I saw, either), and thanked his lucky stars he at least had the clout and sense to nab Meryl for the lead. At least it might pick up one Oscar.