In an especially memorable monologue, an elderly Thatcher asserts that one’s thoughts eventually become one’s character – and one’s character, in turn, becomes one’s destiny. This formulation underscores the point that Thatcher’s beliefs define her, and compelled her to pursue and fulfill her grand destiny. Throughout, the odds are stacked against her. Not only is she forced to swim upstream in Britain’s political fraternity of privilege and paternalism, she similarly stares down the challenge of resisting, and ultimately defeating, the “lily-livered” risk aversion that paralyzes her own party. In improbably accomplishing these goals, Thatcher ascends to previously-unseen heights for a female Western leader. She embraces victory, pointedly refusing to “manage the decline” of her beloved homeland. Instead, she insists on feeding its citizens the medicine (unflinching fiscal conservatism) that she contends hold the cure for economic malaise.
Amidst violent protests in the streets of London, blistering critiques from her Labour Party opponents, and endless hand-wringing within her conservative cabinet, Thatcher resolutely implements her vision. The country flourishes, and Thatcher is rewarded with an unprecedented eleven-and-a-half year stay at Number 10 Downing Street.
In spite of its many attributes, the film isn’t perfect. Some have questioned the decision to focus heavily on Thatcher’s twilight years, as her mind begins to deteriorate. This approach could have been a grotesque flop if Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd hadn’t treated the difficult subject matter with admirable respect and finesse. Yes, the script lingers a bit too long on Thatcher after her prime, but it also humanizes her. Yes, her imagined conversations with her deceased husband, Denis – portrayed with an endearing sparkle by Jim Broadbent – are ponderous at times, but they also offer moving insights into the nature of love and the heart-wrenching difficulty of saying goodbye. And yes, the film’s heavy reliance on flashbacks to steer its story arch occasionally veers into tiresome territory, but it helps juxtapose the frustrations of an increasingly vulnerable and dependent elderly woman with her heady rise to the pinnacle of power just a few decades earlier.
Some conservatives may lament the film’s fleeting, inadequate review of Thatcher’s Cold War leadership, as well as the relegation of her friendship and alliance with President Reagan to a whirlwind montage. These are fair criticisms. Although most of the filmmakers’ choices were sound, these few were curious and merit some second-guessing. On the whole, however, The Iron Lady offers men and (perhaps especially) women of the Right much to savor. In its portrayal of her spirited and unapologetic limited government advocacy, her steady resolve in the face of terrorism, and her decisiveness, compassion, and patriotism in wartime, the film delivers several ‘stand up and cheer’ moments for Thatcher’s devotees and political kindred spirits. It’s also likely to evince some degree of grudging respect from her detractors. A tough balance, and a rare treat.
Margaret Thatcher is a world historical figure who has earned a thoughtful and honest review of her legacy. The Iron Lady, though flawed, hits this mark and should be welcomed by all those who embrace Thatcherism, or at least appreciate the intrinsic value of an honorable and consequential life, well lived.