Film review: The Iron Lady

As a film on the struggle with oncoming dementia and for Meryl Streep's outstanding performance in the title role, this film is very much worth seeing

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Meryl Streep bears a remarkable resemblance to Margaret Thatcher
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Alex Radzyner
On 12 January 2012 15:28

According to a recent longitudinal study, mental deterioration due to ageing starts rather earlier than previously believed. Already at the age of 46, small but measurable deterioration in mental performance can be detected. All the subjects of the study were civil servants, so there is a slim hope for the rest of us that this finding may reflect a professional hazard that applies only to people who believe their defined benefit pensions are secure.

In any event, like the rest of us, people whose careers led them to the exercise of considerable power during their active working life have higher life expectancy than their predecessors of old. Therefore in increasing numbers, they too will suffer from the various illnesses that befall us in old age.

Prime Ministers are no exception and when dementia befalls a famous, formidable and controversial leader such as Margaret Thatcher the deterioration of their mental faculties evokes empathy and is painful to watch.

The Iron Lady is less a biopic about Margaret Thatcher than a moving story of how a powerful strong personality struggles with oncoming dementia. Due to the quality script by Abi Morgan, the strong performances by the ensemble of actors, and the outstanding performance by Meryl Streep, this film would be just as powerful in its impact on the viewer, if its protagonist were an entirely fictional character rather than the imagined real one. 

The Margaret Thatcher of this script fights the onset of dementia with as much courage, common sense and determination as a person in her situation is able to muster. In the early stage of dementia she is portrayed as still self-aware and managing to stay true to herself. In order to try and hide the true extent of her condition from those near to her, she needs an imaginary close friend. She conjures up an imagined version of her deceased husband Dennis (played movingly by Jim Broadbent) to be her accomplice as no doubt he was all through her adult life until his death.

Of course over time dementia will win out, but not quite yet: during the examination by her physician, she gives a taste of the Margaret Thatcher spirit.

Important points of her career are shown as flashbacks in her mind, based on the memories she has created.  These are, out of necessity, one-sided, showing how she had to fight her way up from her modest family home to the upper echelons of the British political system.

Other than Airey Neave, the colleagues in the Conservative Party whom the film shows are either gutless, sitting on the fence, or ready to stab her in the back. The opposition and the British people do not play an important role in her imagination. For her "there is no such thing as society". It is determined individuals like her father that make good things happen.

Her key role as Prime Minister, it seems, is to remove obstacles that might hold such people back. As a leader she knows what she wants and the challenge is getting her male colleagues to run their departments in a manner loyal to her and her principles. For the British people, she prescribes her unwavering personal philosophy of hard-work, fiscal rectitude and self-reliance. The film reminds us of the considerable prejudice against working women and of the misogyny she had to overcome in her early political career.

The film makes no judgement on her politics or her decisions. It does not show the impact she had on the country and its people; it shows how she is impacted by people and events and how she reacts to the challenges of her career – always true to character – flaws and all.

In effect, this film is not at all about the right and wrongs of Margaret Thatcher's politics. It portrays with great human empathy all the members of Margaret Thatcher's family, particularly her daughter who suffers most from the prospect of her mother's unstoppable mental decline.

Personally, I would have preferred if this film had dealt with the life of a fictional character. The fact that it takes a real, living and still very controversial person as its protagonist detracts from its core subject matter. Nevertheless, as a film on the struggle with oncoming dementia and for Meryl Streep's outstanding performance in the title role, this film is still very much worth seeing.

Alex Radzyner writes the London Theater Goer blog

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