As a lad, most of what I knew about Margaret Thatcher – or at least what I cared to know – came directly from an episode or two of the sitcom Are You Being Served?, though it’s fair to say that the show itself acted as my sole repository for the whole of British culture (then and now). In particular, I remember some such discussion about the flailing British economy, and how, in the words of the unflappably underworked Captain Peacock, the medicine of austerity and rampant budget cuts would be bitter, and yet ultimately necessary. For the class-conscious characters, Thatcherism was, in a nutshell, supported wholeheartedly by management (and those with pretensions of same) and violently opposed by the working classes, up to and including the janitorial staff. Thatcher may not have been referred to by name (simply “PM”), but we all knew the score, and on more than one occasion, the outraged sensibilities of the non-elite were pushed to consider a trip down to “#10” for a redress of grievances.
As Captain Peacock and the rest of the hardly working upper tiers looked upon with fondness the mean-spiritedness of Thatcher’s conservative government, I reasonably concluded that she was no better than our own slash-and-burn executive, and therefore would oppose her unapologetically, even if she stirred the flag-waving hearts of men with her very own Grenada. Maggie loved Ronnie, and the sexual heat was returned in kind, and I wanted both of them slapped down by the gods of justice. That both were nearly assassinated united them further in a dance with destiny, and it stands to reason that as their flesh was burned away by the sands of time, dementia and brain rot would saddle them both with golden years decidedly tarnished. Our Mr. Humphries would be pleased, or at least thankful for the cosmic balancing act. We never heard from the IRA at Grace Brothers, but it was enough to have an element of radicalism represented by the union men who fanatically insisted on tea breaks. It was the closest I would get to the front lines of the labor debate.
And now we have The Iron Lady, a film so past an expiration date that few will know (or care) about any of the players that dawdle before us, even though the screenplay will insist on catching us up to speed with that ever-grating device called “the highlight reel”. At various points throughout this slapdash effort, we’ll see snapshots of the Blitz, riots, bombings, and military might, all with little by way of context or explanation. But The Iron Lady isn’t concerned with historical depth or insight; it’s simply a vehicle for the Paul Muni of our times, Meryl Streep, and how she can (and will!) amaze us with her immersion in what passes for character. Her portrayal of Maggie dear isn’t really acting, in a sense, as it seeks only to bring a waxwork to life, and hit all of its marks like a dutiful seal, hoping to god it gets its fishy rewards. Streep’s Thatcher is as shallow as it is preposterous, and while some may marvel at her bitter-lemon lip pursing, or bewildering Julia Child snorting, those who give a damn about cinematic competence will be embarrassed right out of their soda-stained chairs. It very well may be that Thatcher was no more than a contrived collection of tics, mannerisms, and bellowing bon mots, but I’m guessing one doesn’t become the first female to lead the British government by parroting what passes for human behavior. She just might have to back it up now and again.
The film’s central weakness – though it’s like picking a sandlot baseball team from the mouth-breathers at a special school – is that it tells its tale, such as it is, through flashbacks and bizarre hallucinations, as if what we should take from Thatcher’s life is that for all of her landmark actions, she has spent her final years yelling at her dead husband’s ghost. Yes, Denis is around (played with the usual spirit by a wasted Jim Broadbent), though he’s reduced to yet another bitchy spouse who can’t stand that his shorts go unwashed while the other pursues her ambitions. I’m sure Denis felt emasculated at every turn by the balls-out Mags, but instead of real human feeling on this matter, we get Margaret getting dressed for work, screaming at a few members of the House of Commons, and Denis sitting at home in a huff. Some might say this is a biting commentary on gender reversal (how do you like it, hubby dear?), but that would be granting the film a wit it no more possessed than Margaret herself a conscience. And as much as I roar with delight that Thatcher was reduced to a blithering idiot after bleeding the United Kingdom dry, I’d prefer a more pointed lesson. Equally, I would hate any Reagan biopic that erred on the side of the urine-soaked, lamp-tossing, rage-filled incoherence of his final decade in the sunset rather than the murderous hypocrisy of his White House years.
Predictably, there’s a feminist tilt to The Iron Lady, as if Thatcher’s gender alone is enough to warrant our awe and respect. Hammered down with relish, as if through the skull of the retarded, we see that this tenacious daughter of a grocer fought disbelieving men again and again, which makes her final victory as Prime Minister, what, something to celebrate? Ignoring her politics except for an occasional slogan, the film says that tits alone are enough to solidify Thatcher’s importance in our collective memory, which is a bit like saying we should admire Hitler because he proved that artistic failure and grim poverty are not in fact real barriers to eventually murdering half of Europe. The unknowing might sense that Thatcher doesn’t like poor people, or that the best way to save a nation is to gut everything not related to romanticizing rich union-busters, but at no point are we asked to fully interrogate what really made this woman a point of controversy throughout the world. If you oppose her, the movie argues, it is because you are a misogynist, and would prefer that the wives around the globe cook and clean and leave political wrangling to the men. It is this apolitical, heinously chickenshit attitude that consigns The Iron Lady to the ash heap of irrelevance, even if Streep’s irritating cackle of a performance is enough to place it firmly atop the list of year’s worst. I’m sick to fucking death of her stunts, and would prefer she play human beings once again not in search of an Oscar.
It was at the moment that Thatcher went to war over the three square blocks that was and is the Falkland Islands that I sensed what could have been. Rather than hem and haw through unnecessary “motivations” (Maggie loved her dad, and seemed to despise her mother, hence her desire to strap on a penis and give it a go), it would have been grand to narrow the proceedings to a Woman at War, which would go far indeed in proving that for all the feminist twaddle about women being superior at leadership, they want to blow shit up just like the rest of us. It was a hilarious side note, little explored, that at the very moment Thatcher roared that England was going bankrupt, she spent billions gassing up the moribund navy to take back what few knew had been possessed to begin with. Unemployment far too high? Strikes piling up the trash in the streets? Stage a little distraction to get the masses clucking about empire and king and country and all that, and declare a victory that, while meaningless, also ensures a few hundred state funerals that push away the rage in favor of Union Jack tears. Brilliant, Maggie dear, and perhaps her finest hour of full-tilt insanity, but this movie believes we’d rather see her have coffee with a corpse. Or smell her dead husband’s clothes like he’s a martyred gay cowboy.
In the end, The Iron Lady humiliates all involved, and it just might push me to read more about the subject at hand, if only to see a dimension beyond rude caricature. I’m not sure a fiery polemic would have been any better, but at least it would have represented a perspective; a desire to push the audience into reasoning that not all historical figures are equal, simply because they lived and died. Shades of subtlety are, of course, preferable to the school of Oliver Stone, but I’m also certain that, upon leaving a movie, one should not tap any nearby shoulder and ask, “Um, what the fuck was all that?” Rubbish, sir or madam, and the sort that can’t even take its own stench as inspiration to become a camp classic. In more than one sense, Thatcher is ideal to play Joan Crawford in a sequel to Mommie Dearest, with a musical number or two to keep things honest. Instead, we must be content with the gutless; a movie neither here nor there and not a single reason to exist, save the lust for critical approval. To make matters worse, there’s even a nod to last year’s Best Picture winner, as if to say that Maggie too was reinvented for our consumption. A My Fair Lady of government. Or maybe just The Cunt’s Speech for a woman out of time. And out of her damn mind.