The Iron Lady—the film on the life of Margaret Thatcher—is worth viewing more than once. Not only is Meryl Streep’s performance as Britain’s first female Prime Minister astounding, but the film itself rises to greatness for its direction, subtlety, and artistry.
Many criticized the film because it focussed on the retired premier’s dementia and did not laud her political achievements sufficiently. This is to misunderstand both the film and the art form. The Iron Lady was that uniquely cinematic contribution to biography called a “bio pic.” In a good bio pic the historical figure’s life is reduced to a two-hour drama which encapsulates the whole person. To do this, the dramatist focuses in on one aspect, one adventure or one area of the subject’s life which captivates the attention and captures the personage.
Critics attack the film for not being something it was never intended to be. The Iron Lady is not a documentary on the accomplishments of Margaret Thatcher. It was not written as a eulogy or a paean of praise to a fallen leader. It was not meant to be a factual record. It was intended as a dramatic study of larger themes woven into the amazing story of the grocer’s daughter who became the most memorable leader of modern Britain.
Framing the story within the setting of a failing old woman raises the dramatic tension and reveals the underlying human themes. The frail and elderly Margaret Thatcher provides the perfect foil for the dominant personality of the younger years. Her fragile vulnerability in old age highlights the indomitable spirit in her prime. Almost unconsciously we are plunged into the drama of human mortality, the ultimate vanity of prestige and wealth and the pitiful advance of age.
The Iron Lady evoked themes of Machiavellian power plays, murder and betrayal and the quicksand traps of power and pride. By focusing on her dementia, the poignant themes of madness and old age were played out. Here was a female Lear, raging impotently against age and abandoned by all—with faithful Carol Thatcher playing the dutiful Cordelia.
If the film echoes the themes of King Lear unconsciously, then director Phyllida Lloyd was more obvious in her choice of other dramatic symbolism. In one scene the young Margaret Thatcher attends a performance of the opera Norma at Covent Garden.
Norma is the story of a powerful Druid priestess who leads her people in the face of the invading Romans. Betrayed by her Roman soldier lover, who is the father of her two children, Norma rallies the Druids to seek revenge. Director Lloyd not only has Denis and Margaret Thatcher attend a performance of the opera, but the music from Norma is woven into the film at crucial scenes. In the climax of the opera, Norma sacrifices herself to deliver her people from oppression. In her choice of symbolic music the director indicates that Margaret Thatcher, while flawed, was indeed a heroic, self sacrificial and even tragic figure. This respect for Thatcher’s underlying values is also brought forward in the scenes where Thatcher’s father (like Norma’s Father Oroveso) rallies his people to stand up and fight for the honest British values of honesty, self-reliance and service to others.
Finally, the film is worth re-watching to study the brilliant use of a special term in the cinematic vocabulary—the image system. An “image system” is a recurring symbol that functions as a short hand for the themes of the whole film and the personality of the main character. For example, if the theme is about the wholesomeness of home and ordinary folk, the image system might be grain and bread. The camera will linger on bread, wheat fields, home-baked loaves and there will be a crucial scene in a bakery. The image system in a film functions visually to validate the themes and characters at a sub linguistic level.
In The Iron Lady Phylidda Lloyd uses the brilliant image system of shoes. Time and again we see shots of Margaret Thatcher’s feet. Her blue high heels are the only ladies shoes in a Parliament full of dull wing tips. Her low brown shoes in old age reflect the dull flatness of her life. The camera follows her red shoes as she strides sadly but confidently down the stairs and out of Downing Street after her betrayal and downfall. As she goes they scatter red roses (the symbol of her nemesis the Labor Party) which she tramples underfoot while the music from Norma echoes through her exit.
The Iron Lady is an excellent example of modern British film making. Eschewing the explosions and escapades Hollywood dishes out for its increasingly adolescent audience, the film on Thatcher is a mature, subtle and intelligent work of cinematic art which complements the other literature and documentation of Britain’s greatest conservative leader.
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