In 1979, Margaret Thatcher won the first of her three terms as Britain’s prime minister. By 2012, however, no American woman has yet reached the presidency. The only woman to make a serious run was considered presidential timber mostly by having been First Lady. Why are women still underrepresented in high office?
Judging by The Iron Lady, a Margaret Thatcher biopic starring a superlative Meryl Streep, one reason might be that women, on average, aren’t that fascinated by politics. For example, the three Englishwomen who wrote, directed, and edited The Iron Lady appear remarkably uninterested in the affairs of state that captivated their main character.
Abi Morgan’s screenplay even misses much of the human drama in Thatcher’s political career. For instance, we are shown the IRA bombing of her hotel suite at the 1984 Brighton Conservative Party conference at 2:54AM, but not her subsequent (and thus galvanizing) address right on schedule at 9:30AM. Nor do we see her stiffen George H. W. Bush’s spine the day after Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait in 1990 with, “Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly.”
While a political nullity, The Iron Lady is a first-rate women’s picture, a poignant depiction of a happy marriage, a sad widowhood, and the frustrations of eldercare. Streep plays the frail 86-year-old Thatcher (who has been in decline since several strokes in 2002) looking backward to some public but mostly personal moments, especially her extraordinarily successful 51-year marriage. Jim Broadbent tenderly portrays the late Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman who became a folk hero by having the good sense to give no interviews, thus encouraging onlookers to try imagining what the old buffer was muttering to “The Boss” behind his mannerly smile.
The intimate scenes between Streep and Broadbent are played exquisitely. It’s odd, however, to see a film devoted largely to a side of Mrs. Thatcher in which not even she seemed all that interested. Once in the 1990s, my wife enjoyed a woman-to-woman chat with the ex-PM on the sort of family topics that obsess the filmmakers. For example, the Baroness confided in her: “I was most fortunate to have had twins,” because giving birth to a boy and a girl simultaneously let her get on with her career more quickly. My wife found these personal revelations fascinating. Yet overall, Mrs. Thatcher seemed more concerned with statecraft, such as warning that the upcoming euro currency was unsound. (How’s the euro working out, anyway?)
The Iron Lady’s screenplay drew upon two memoirs by the Thatchers’ daughter Carol, who was her dad’s darling. (Her twin brother Mark, an Africa-based adventurer, is his mother’s favorite.) Carol published a fond biography of her father, followed by a tell-all revealing her mother’s recent struggles with memory loss. In the movie, Carol is portrayed as the dutiful child while Mark barely calls, although in real life Mark may visit more often.