Saint Margaret of Grantham
by James Killough @James_Killough
This might be a controversial headline for the PFC review of Iron Lady, but fear not, I haven’t gone over to the dark side and become an ultra-right-wing Thatcherite. It’s just my usual skewed thinking in light of the subtheme of this film: dementia and insanity, which as readers of this blog well know are as fascinating to me as filmmaking itself.
There are parallels to be drawn between Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving British prime minister of the twentieth century, and Joan of Arc, a saint who is a particular favorite of mine when I am making the case that almost all saints, prophets, and demigods of religions across the globe are textbook schizophrenics.
Saint Joan, an illiterate medieval peasant teenager, had her first psychotic break when she was seventeen, right on time for a female schizo—they usually have their first break with reality before twenty, boys a little later, before twenty-two. Against all odds, she convinced the Dauphin to put her at the head of the French army, which she then led to victory over the most powerful military force in Europe, the English.
This was a staggering accomplishment, and once everyone woke up to how staggering it was they could only ascribe it to witchcraft, so they burned poor Joanie at the stake. She couldn’t recant, for like most true schizos her hallucinations were very real to her. Had she lived today, she would have had a hundred volts shot through her head and been jacked up on neuraleptic “zombie juice,” and placed in the corner of a sanitarium to drool quietly.
Flashing forward to post-war Britain, young Margaret’s first staggering accomplishment is she earns a place at Oxford, despite her sex and the fact she is a grocer’s daughter; you don’t need to watch Downton Abbey to know the implications of this in Britain back then. She then gets a calling to go into politics, and first runs for Parliament at the age of twenty-four. She loses, but never gives up, soldiering on with that legendary goose-stepping British resolve, which in six years of living in London I never personally witnessed in anyone I came across; they just seem to “muddle along,” which is probably truer to what really happened with Thatcher.
Comparisons are often made between Ronald Reagan and Thatcher, to the sort of dual trans-Atlantic conservative revolution they pulled off, but Reagan didn’t inherit as much of a basket case to rule as Thatcher did, not by a long shot. Yes, there was the Iranian hostage crisis, yes, there was a fuel shortage in the US, but I’m fairly convinced all of that was something of a Republican contrivance to get rid of Carter, given the Texan stranglehold on global oil, and the Reagan administration’s deep involvement with the Iranian Revolution, with which I was tangentially involved. In other words, I don’t believe Saint Ronald’s first miraculous act, releasing the American Embassy hostages held in Tehran, was any feat of diplomacy because he held the reins the whole time.
I was barely a teenager two years before Thatcher swept into power, when were sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport for five or six hours waiting for some British clusterfuck to clear so the flight we were on could proceed to New York. Those were the waning days of the golden era of flying, when the dome of a 747 was a first-class lounge, so it wasn’t such a bad place for a kid to be stuck all that time. I had already made friends with a boy two years older than me, but I was very pleased because everyone thought I was the older; I’ve never had a growth spurt, so I towered over him.
However, when I asked a flight attendant who she thought was the eldest, she said that while I looked older, the other boy was clearly the more mature because he was better behaved and didn’t get in the way of the stewardesses, as they were still glamorously called, and didn’t annoy other passengers with his clowning around like I did. This shut me up (not for long), while Boy Serious grilled two British passengers, both businessmen in early middle age, about the deteriorating situation in their country, which was has led to our flight being held for hours at the gate.
After a litany about the failing services and the devastation in the manufacturing sector, long the backbone of the British economy, one of them explained that if he were to be paid his full salary per his American counterparts at his company, in theory he would have to pay one hundred-and-ten percent income tax. He was essentially remunerated mostly in kind: his house was in his company’s name, as were the cars, the kids’ tuition was covered by them, the utilities, and on and on.
When the Quixotic Thatcher rode into power, the country was in as much turmoil as Saint Joan’s France, compounded by relentless bombing attacks from the IRA, of which she was twice almost a victim herself. Hers was, indeed, an insane mission, as was her defense of the Falklands, but like Saint Joan she succeeded against all odds. And once the mission was accomplished and the reality of Margaret’s borderline insane temperament set in, her own team very quickly burned her career at the stake and booted her out.
Iron Lady is the finest performance of Meryl Streep’s career, her apotheosis. If you liked her as Julia Child, that turn was a breezy, jaunty farce in comparison to what she pulls off her. She is so nuanced and pitch-perfect that midway through I had to remind myself that there were only two sets of cast, not three—the film skips blithely from modern elderly dementia-suffering Thatcher, to her as Prime Minister in middle age, to her as a young woman. The latter role is played by Alexandra Roach, while Streep carries the first two, again with such genius that you think it is two different actresses.
That is the only word to describe Streep at this juncture: genius. Hers isn’t the kind of intelligence that can be measured on IQ tests or compared to Einstein’s because there is a huge amount of physical dexterity involved in transforming yourself so completely, and that is a kind of acuity that is hard to account for because it can’t be measured empirically.
There is no doubt Streep should win the Oscar for this, as should her makeup team. If I were any of the other nominees, I would just relax and show up for the chance to wear a nice frock and get slaughtered at the open bars. If she doesn’t bag the statuette, it’s because the Academy has suddenly flipped to being gratuitously subversive and contrarian, or they might be afraid of Streep being slapped with and anti-trust suit for having such a monopoly over great acting.
So far beyond anything out there right now is Streep’s performance that I was wavering between giving Iron Lady either a Wow or a Bravo, until the film skidded into the third act like a sleek Formula One car hitting a massive oil slick and crashed. When director Phyllida Lloyd—with whom Streep made one of the last DVD blockbusters, the torturous ABBA tribute Mamma Mia—and writer Abi Morgan (the ridiculous Shame) decide to trot out one of the weariest, most exploitative visual clichés in modern cinema to close out the elderly segment of the film between Streep and Jim Broadbent, who plays Dennis Thatcher, it’s like watching a perfectly designed ship colliding with an iceberg and sinking, just to make sure I am really flogging those luxury vehicle metaphors for all they’re worth.
I personally don’t believe that dementia is some disease that comes on in old age like a virus. I think that like any organ or muscle in the body, the brain begins to give way late in life and whatever mechanisms that were in place to contain symptoms of insanity such as hallucinations—and I am making a distinction between those symptoms and memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s—are unable to keep up appearances.
The film suggests (correctly, in my opinion) that, like Reagan, Thatcher exhibited signs of dementia while still on office. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both she and her American counterpart developed the same disease; they were crackpots cut from the same cloth, and their restraining walls simply broke. But Lloyd and Morgan then reverse themselves by stating that somehow Thatcher has triumphed over her hallucinations to keep calm and carry on washing teacups in the best stiff-upper-lip British tradition, which is the sort of fatal nonsense that tragically undermines an otherwise superlative cinematic effort on all levels.
Going back to my luxury vehicles comparisons (sort of), do not go to this film expecting one of the wistful, grand British biopics we have seen in recent years like The Queen or The King’s Speech. Iron Lady is more in line with Oliver Stone’s Nixon.
I am going to have to split my rating on this.