As I exited the theatre last week after viewing “The Iron Lady,” I overheard a group of women commenting on the film.

“I’m disappointed,” one woman said, while others chimed in. “I really didn’t like the emphasis on her dementia and had hoped it was more about what she did while she was prime minister.”

I was a little taken aback, having left the screening with a strong sense that the movie was one of the best I’d ever seen.

As a lifelong liberal, I had always believed Margaret Thatcher to be the antithesis to everything I believed in. I had no understanding of her humanity, no appreciation of her accomplishments–until watching this movie. I was walking from the theatre into the blinding light of day and into the realization that this was a woman I should admire and honour for so many reasons I had never considered.

As such, I was shocked to hear others say they were disappointed.

Thatcher reconsidered

But that is–in a nutshell–the wonder of this movie. It presented to the audience, a totally unexpected and unrelentingly human portrayal of a woman, who has largely been regarded (at least from my limited Canadian perspective) as a one-dimensional representation of a political ideology. Thatcher, the queen of conservatism, played brilliantly by Meryl Streep, held no fascination for me prior to this movie. I realized that I had never taken the time to question or challenge my own perspective of a woman who will most certainly go down in history as a great leader, a courageous person who challenged the status quo and broke down barriers.

The fact that she may be struggling with dementia now is, to me, a secondary message. This is a natural outcome of aging. The fact that we find this uncomfortable or don’t want the filmmakers to discuss it, is an indication of ongoing refusal to acknowledge the natural aging process. It’s like saying that we shouldn’t allow the director to depict her with gray hair or wrinkles. Seriously? The fact is that more than 750,000 people in the United Kingdom suffer from dementia, two thirds of those people being women. Margaret Thatcher is an exceptionally brilliant woman. That does not preclude her from developing dementia and that is a worthwhile message in and of itself.

As a storytelling technique, the use of the flashback is common and I was not at all disturbed by its use in this movie. The women I overheard earlier said they found the technique to be distracting. I would argue that it was intrinsic to the telling of Thatcher’s story. How better to illustrate the complexity of this woman than to switch back and forth from the rigid youthful Thatcher to the frail woman she is now, wistfully longing for her beloved Denis and worrying about his well-being (although she knows he is long dead)?

Can’t help but compare to Mirren

Unlike the wonderfully astute portrayal of Queen Elizabeth by Helen Mirren (who is one of my personal favourites), Streep’s Thatcher did not aspire to reflect as much as to reveal.

Known for her unflinching (some might say, dogmatic) belief in a conservative view of the world, Thatcher is shown by director Phyllida Lloyd to be vulnerable, idealistic and ultimately, a woman betrayed by her own party. Her “no compromise” philosophy is illustrated throughout. It’s not WHAT she believed in that led to her downfall, but HOW unflinchingly she believed in it. Surely, this is a recipe for disaster.

This is a film that resonates with me and perhaps with others (likely in the majority) who don’t believe in a strict partisanship. I’ve noticed that the average audience member is more favourable to the movie than the critics. I find myself disagreeing with on critics on this one–which rarely happens.

A movie ahead of its time?

The Iron Lady surprises us with a less than “steely” depiction of the Baroness Thatcher. It also reveals her unbridled ambition, hints at some decidedly un-feminine characteristics, including close relationships with several men (other than her husband) and depicts her husband as almost completely and selflessly committed to her success–talk about a complete reversal of stereotypical roles!

One does wonder if perhaps this is a movie that is ahead of its time and if the critics are not quite ready to confront a relationship that literally turns gender stereotypes upside down. There is a scene where Thatcher pours her heart out to her fiance, Denis, revealing to him that she will never be a conventional wife and instead is possessed of a particularly awful “demon” whereby she has no desire to be simply a homemaker and a mother. If he is to marry her, she demands that he recognize and accept this quality (which of course, he does, without hesitation). That scene simply melted my heart, I must admit.

Darkness and despair

The film touches on all of the major challenges to Thatcher during her 10+ years as Prime Minister. The Falkland Islands, the IRA and subsequent assassination attempt, her clashes with the unions and her actions during the Cold War–all are at least touched upon. There are scenes of discomfort and despair (her relationship with her twins is particularly heartbreaking) and the painful isolation she experienced as the only woman in an all-male “club.” Throughout it all, she stuck to her beliefs and rarely strayed. It is left up to the audience to determine if this was the best approach.

At the end of the movie, it is perhaps symbolic that Thatcher seems to dismiss her daughter Carol’s caring attention. Despite Carol’s selfless devotion, it’s her son that Thatcher pines for. And when he telephones and explains that he cannot, in fact, make it home for a visit with her, Thatcher is so visibly devastated that it is painful to watch. A sad situation for all concerned.

Seeking approval at the end of the day

I’m not sure what to make of this latter revelation except to conclude that Thatcher continously sought the approval of men, whether it was her father, her husband or the men who sat alongside her in government. At the end of the day, it was her son’s approval that eluded her and her daughter’s sacrifices that went unrecognized.

All in all, a complex story of a woman, told by women, and likely to stimulate a lot of discussion.

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