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The Iron Lady – politics and dementia

Biopics are always tricky to pull off. How do you summarize an entire life in a two hour movie? Do you focus primarily on the public life, since that’s usually why a movie treatment seems warranted, or zero in on the personal life instead, since that’s the side of the story the audience doesn’t know? “The Iron Lady” aims for both – and succeeds far better with the personal stuff than with the public, political side of Margaret Thatcher’s life.

Thatcher was the powerhouse conservative Prime Minister of Great Britain during the turbulent 1980’s. An ally of President Ronald Reagan, she ruled with an iron fist, doing her best to prevent Britain from turning into what she saw as a socialist welfare state. She engaged in bitter battles with the unions and with the IRA, and surprised most everyone with her absolute insistence on going to war over the distant Falkland Islands. There’s a nice moment in the film when the American Secretary of State suggests that perhaps she wouldn’t be so strident about going to war if she had had any military experience herself. She retorts that she has battled every single day of her life, and given the difficulty of being a woman in the very “man’s world” of politics, she’s quite convincing.
But these insightful “moments” are few and far between; at least the political ones are. “The Iron Lady” covers a lot of terrain as it follows the many highs and lows of Thatcher’s political career. But because it rushes through so many of them, the film comes off not as comprehensive but as shallow.

Fortunately, the movie is not all politics. In fact, Meryl Streep’s Iron Lady is a little iron-deficient, metaphorically speaking. And that turns out to be the unexpected strength of the film. It’s the personal and vulnerable side of Britain’s powerful prime minister that shines through the rush of events.

The movie is presented through the filter of an aging and long retired Thatcher. It’s a framing device that establishes her vulnerablitilty from the very opening scene: she buys a bottle of milk at her local grocery store and then gingerly makes her way home, slowly walking, almost hobbling her way through traffic. Once there, it soon becomes clear that she’s mentally fragile, often confusing reality with random memories and imaginary conversations with her long dead husband. That opening establishes a poignancy that lingers throughout the film, no matter the many professional triumphs and occasional setbacks she experiences in her historic life.

As in real life, Streep’s Thatcher is grappling with dementia. The Oscar-winning actress is so effective and believable portraying this disease that at times it’s heart-wrenching to witness. This is a Margaret Thatcher none of us knows and Streep makes her utterly sympathetic.

By movie’s end, I don’t have a deeper understanding of Thatcher’s politics or what made her so successful but I do have a keener appreciation for what it must be like getting older and slowly losing one’s grip over a life that once was so powerful.

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