A Margaret Thatcher movie with Meryl Streep? You better believe I was there. The movie was good, Streep gave a performance exactly as good as you would expect from her. But when I walked out of it, the people I was with were under the impression I did not like it. Here’s why: It was a crap movie about Thatcher.
The movie opens in 2009 with Thatcher buying milk at a local grocery store. She’s a doddering, slightly fuddled old woman clearly overstimulated by the small store and intimidated by the other (non-white!) customers. “Milk has gone up,” she says to a hallucination of her dead husband over breakfast, and all of a sudden she’s sharp on the ball. This is your first clue that this movie was badly marketed and horrifically titled. It’s not about Thatcher, it’s about getting old, losing your faculties while you’re aware enough to know it’s happening, and staying true to your sense of self even as age and time is taking it away from you.
As a movie about a formerly formidable woman coping with the betrayal of time, it’s brilliant. You get just enough flashbacks to the past to imbue the current timeline scenes with an extra level of emotional complexity. My favorite moment was when she goes in to the doctor at her daughter’s insistence and he asks her if she’s having hallucinations. “No,” she says, despite having yelled at her hallucination to leave her alone in the previous scene. It’s a delightfully subtle demonstration of a woman too trapped by her pride and dignity to accept the help she needs in order to maintain either.
As a Thatcher movie, if you nothing else, you’d walk away from it thinking that Thatcher was a spunky girl who skipped into the Prime Ministership, did something nebulously controversial, started a war, felt bad about it, won it, then got run out of office after yelling at her secretary. Which, uhm, well. I don’t think you have to like Thatcher to think that’s a rather weak, unsatisfactory rendering of her career. A good movie would have come down either in favor of her or condemned her, a great movie would have rendered her career and let the audience’s prejudices make the choice. This movie flinched entirely and avoided the issue.
Judging a movie for failing to live up to its advertising isn’t fair. But this movie stumbled on the title. You can’t call it, “The Iron Lady,” then wince when it’s time to portray Thatcher’s career. I feel like the movie they actually made would have been much better served with a rust pun in the title, or something. As it is, it took on the baggage of a pile of expectations it fails to meet. Great movie; terrible Thatcher movie.