American conservatives and admirers of Margaret Thatcher the world over seem to be approaching The Iron Lady, a new biopic about the former British Prime Minister, with justifiable skepticism. Hollywood isn’t exactly celebrated for its fair – let alone favorable – treatment of political figures who dare to defy Tinseltown’s notorious liberal consensus. Decidedly mixed reviews and cries of bias from certain quarters have also fed many Thatcher fans’ reticence to reward the filmmakers with their hard-earned dollars. Fortunately, conservatives have little to fear from The Iron Lady, which surprises with a moving, even-handed and, at times, inspirational portrayal of one of the Right’s twentieth century titans.
Much of the buzz about this project has revolved around Meryl Streep’s role as Lady Thatcher, and with good reason: Streep is sensational. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan captured the depth of Streep’s performance in a recent Wall Street Journal column. “The masterpiece is Meryl Streep's portrayal of Mrs. Thatcher, which is not so much a portrayal as an inhabitation. It doesn't do justice to say Ms. Streep talks like her, looks like her, catches some of her spirit, though those things are true. It's something deeper than that, something better and more important,” she wrote.
But the heart of the movie isn’t Streep’s uncanny skill in capturing her subject’s essence. Rather, the film’s strength is its subject’s essence – her life story, her principles, and her extraordinary achievements. In spite of whispers to the contrary, The Iron Lady does not gloss over or dismiss Margaret Thatcher’s philosophical core as an unpleasant side show. The film ably tracks Thatcher’s unmistakably conservative course, beginning with a scene in which a young Thatcher (then named Margaret Roberts, played beautifully by Alexandra Roach) witnesses her father – a local grocer – deliver an impassioned speech on the value of hard work and self-reliance. Years later, as a low-ranking minister in Britain’s Conservative government, Thatcher counsels her poll-obsessed superiors against capitulating to labor unions’ demands during the throes of a destructive strike. Though her sage advice is discarded with a condescending pat on the head, her political courage is galvanized.
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.