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Monday, January 16, 2012

The Iron Lady and the Pope, Part 1

I came out of the theater with a twinge of disappointment after seeing The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd’s biopic of Margaret Thatcher. Not because The Iron Lady isn’t a terrific film. It is—and for more than one reason. Meryl Streep’s magnificent rendering of Mrs. Thatcher is a masterpiece, and she is well-deserving of the Golden Globe she won last night for her performance (a performance turned in with the aid of the best geriatric make-up I have ever seen—if Billy Crystal’s old man get-up in Mr. Saturday Night is a 1, Meryl Streep’s aged Mrs. Thatcher is at least a 13). And the narrative structure of the film is extremely compelling. It takes Mrs. Thatcher’s slide into dimentia in the present day as an impetus for excursions back in time to various episodes in her personal life and political career. In his New York Times review A.O. Scott wonders whether Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan aren’t trying to have their cake and eat it too by making a film that, at once, tries to “celebrate their heroine as a feminist pioneer while showing her to be tragically unfulfilled according to traditional standards of feminine accomplishment.” I don’t see this as Lloyd and Morgan trying to have it both ways. The complexities of their subject demanded that their attention be pulled in both these directions, and it seems to me a brilliant stroke that they didn’t merely focus on Mrs. Thatcher as the lioness of Britain, but also tried to see her as a (not always very successful) wife, mother and widow.

Mrs. Thatcher is portrayed in the film as passionate about ideas, about “doing things” rather than “being somebody.” Scott, however, doesn’t find Lloyd and Morgan themselves as interested in ideas as Mrs. Thatcher. “Though the film pays lip service to Mrs. Thatcher’s analytic intelligence and tactical shrewdness, its focus is on the drama and pathos of her personal life. In her dotage, watched over by professionally cheery minders, she putters about in a haze of half-senile nostalgia, occasionally drawn back into the glory and pain of the past.” Again, I applaud Lloyd and Morgan for not divorcing their heroine’s personal and political life—who knows if a male director and screenwriter would ever have approached this particular subject in this particular way? But the film, like most biopics that attempt to cover the entirety of their subject’s life, left me a little cold. There are so many facets of Mrs. Thatcher’s life that were, if not passed over, given only impressionistic treatment. The film comes off as a series of episodes, as elliptical as memory itself, and while there is much interest to the approach, the lack of narrative unity left me hungry for more extended dramatic developments of her marriage and family life, her rise to power, her key political decisions, and her relationships with male political colleagues and combatants. No one film could possibly do all of this, of course, but that precisely is the grandeur and misery of the biopic: wanting to present the whole life, it ends up giving us only a series of episodes. Compare, on this score, the approach in The Queen (2006, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Peter Morgan), which is not at all a biopic of Queen Elizabeth II, but is rather a study of Queen Elizabeth in one particularly dramatic episode of her life. Perhaps this kind of approach, while limited in its own way, is the best means of telling a single story about a famous person. 

There are scenes in The Iron Lady where Mrs. Thatcher is shown giving voice to her always controversial political ideas. But these scenes are either snippets of speeches, or scenes in which she is knocking down straw men (often her own advisors). One dialectic that is missing in the film is a dramatic contest between Mrs. Thatcher’s conservative ideas and those of her rivals. Scott says of Lloyd and Morgan that “they…manage to push the great passion and distinction of her life—her pursuit and exercise of power—into the background. This is not unusual in biopics, which frequently turn artists into substance abusers and sexual adventurers who just happened to cut a few records or paint a few pictures on their way to redemption. The Iron Lady, following this template, makes a particular hash of British history, compressing social and economic turmoil into a shorthand that resembles a chronologically scrambled British version of Billy’s Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (Miners’ strike/Falklands War/I can’t take it any more ...).” This comment doesn’t do justice to how fascinating Lloyd and Morgan’s whirlwind tour of Mrs. Thatcher’s political career actually is. But it does hit upon a real weakness in their narrative approach.

One of the most intriguing facets of The Iron Lady is the light it sheds on the current political scene, not just in Britain but throughout the West. To many under forty, the events portrayed in this film might seem like ancient history. The reality, however, is that the political turmoil that characterized Mrs. Thatcher’s career is all too identical to the political turmoil that characterizes our political climate today. The question that roiled Britain throughout the 1980s is still the question facing the West today: What is the guiding principle of politics? Is it the resourcefulness of individuals making the most out of their liberties? Or is it the obligation of the State to ensure the realization of the common good? Or is it some third consideration? I credit The Iron Lady for telling a story that invites its audience to ponder these issues. In trying to get my own thoughts clear on them, I have returned to a document written by one of Mrs. Thatcher’s eminent contemporaries, Pope John Paul II. In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus (“The Hundreth Year”—written for the centennial of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum), John Paul discusses, through the lens the Iron Curtain's downfall in 1989, the fundamental principles of political life, and in doing so illuminates several truths about politics concerning which both conservative and liberal proponents consistently are blind. In my next couple of posts I want at least to make a list of what I have learned from Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, and thus pay tribute to one thing about which Mrs. Thatcher was undoubtedly in the right:

The supreme importance of thinking.  

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