dir: Phyllida Lloyd
Damn, that Maggie, she was a bit of a saucy tyrant, eh? Sorry, that’s Baroness Thatcher to the likes of you and me, fellow bloody peasants.
It’s still a freaky occurrence that Maggie, or any woman for that matter, rose to power to lead the Tory party to successive victories at Britain’s polls, and was, for various reasons, one of the most powerful persons in the world, let alone powerful women. For various reasons, the leadership of Golda Meir, or Indira Ghandi or any other women who’ve risen to (elected) power is more explainable than Maggie’s seizure of the reins.
Those driving forces, personal and societal, will remain a sweet mystery for you, perhaps even becoming more mysterious for you, after having watched this flick, because it never comes close to giving us an inkling of how or why any of it happened.
That’s not entirely fair. Maggie, as portrayed here, is possessed of implacable ambition and an iron will. She’s also highly intelligent, and deeply committed to her father’s conservative views about the wonderfulness of hard-working middle-class people, and the worthlessness of the lower orders of society.
Scratch that, I just remembered that Thatcher once famously said that there was no such thing as society. So there’s no society to speak of. However, if such a thing actually existed, then Maggie would be against it, not for it.
Meryl Streep won the Academy Award for this role, and it’s hard to argue that it’s not a great performance. It is. It truly is. Her rendering, her recreation of the woman is nothing short of frightening. She imbues her with far more than just a competent impression would. She summons up this horrible / admirable creature from the abyss for all of us to behold, in all her ignominious glory.
Wait, what? Maggie’s not dead yet? I know that, I’m just saying that the Maggie Meryl summons for us is from a time when Maggie was still lucid, and fearsome. She is neither now, having long ago fallen down the dementia rabbit hole, possibly some time in the 1980s. I kid, I kid, she’s great, she’s all right.
I don’t know about the framing device. It must have seemed like a great idea to the screenwriter and the director at the time, but the framing device is diabolical. The set up is that Maggie is a doddering old woman losing touch with the world around her and time itself in about 2008. She sees and speaks to her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), though we’re given to understand quite quickly that he is no longer among the living.
His presence is quite annoying, deliberately annoying, spoiling the ends of books for her, and generally badgering her as she muddles about. Every now and then he’ll say something that triggers that worst of flashback transitions, being the pensive stare into the middle distance that prompts a temporal shift. Wavy lines would have been better.
And it happens with depressing regularity. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we want to hang out with this creepy octogenarian too long. Neither does anyone else, though, which makes us feel some pity for her.
Oh yes, she’s a pitiable character. The crafty filmmakers know it’s harder to stay angry at a decrepit monster than at one in fine fettle and full flight, which is why they devote so much time to her doddering around the place as people look on in mild horror.
She toddles on down to the local shop to buy a litre of milk, and, I’m telling you, the scene made me laugh out loud. I doubt Baroness Thatcher has left the house to buy anything, whether it’s a litre of milk or a gram of cocaine in the last forty years.
There’s not a lot that’s independently interesting about all this doddering, though. In fact, it’s fucking tedious, if you’ll allow me to use such a word in a sentence that also refers to this Tory saint. It’s far more interesting (and by ‘far more’, I probably mean ‘a little bit more’) in the past, when she’s shocking the pipe-smoking bluebloods and born-to-rule types with her self-assurance and commitment to ideals they themselves don’t believe in as Tories. Her formative years are shown as being the time when her political thinking solidified, prompted by the derision she used to received as a ‘shopkeeper’s daughter’. England’s had a long tradition of mocking the so-called ‘merchant’ class, and there’s even a scene where her father (Iain Glen) repeats Napoleon’s classic putdown of England as a nation of shopkeepers.
I don’t know how true it was, and I’ll never know how true it was, but the film implies that Maggie really just wanted to show other people who might have looked down on her that she was every bit as worthy, every bit as capable of being snooty over other people as they were.
This from a woman who first earned a degree in chemistry at Oxford in the 1940s, and later went to the bar as a barrister?
You're hiding what made her great, people, you're not revealing it.
If you think I’m implying that the flick is completely lacking in any depth or meaning outside of simplistic renderings of what must have been complex events and people, you’d be so right. This flick does to any hopes I may have had that this would be a vaguely intelligent flick what the Brits did to the Argentinian naval vessel the Belgrano; brutally torpedo it, sinking it completely and killing almost everyone onboard.
Sure, various events rear their ugly heads, but they end up having no impact on us as viewers, because of how signpost-y they come across. Sure, Maggie, looking back looks sad and weary, but it doesn’t meaning anything. She aspires to be leader: some guys grumble, then tell her what she needs to do, Denis whines a bit, then she’s leader. The coalminers go on strike: she tells the people of Britain the union represents scum, and that’s that. Argentina tries to take back the Malvinas Islands (being the Falklands), Maggie wants them taken back, and that’s that.
No thought goes towards weaving those moments into an overall story, an overall narrative, something that builds or extends on our limited knowledge of who this remarkable woman was both publicly, and, more importantly, privately. Surely something more than class resentment made this woman tick. Surely she desired something more than power for its own sake. Surely?
Perhaps not. Despite Streep’s remarkable performance, or perhaps even because of it, Maggie doesn’t come out of this as a fully formed character, just as an idea. The one moment where she seems to really shine through as a person, as opposed to Streep’s impression of what Maggie might have been like as a person, is when she’s berating a doctor who asks her how she’s feeling.
Well, this sets her off on a tirade about how people these days are obsessed with each other’s feelings, instead of asking what really matters: What are you thinking, Maggie? What do you think about the tide of scum washing onto Albion’s shores, and how more can you punish the most vulnerable members of British society?
Oh, wait, I just remembered, “society” doesn’t exist.
That’s what she wanted to be asked. That, and another reason to justify the Poll Tax, whose introduction she spearheaded and whose purpose was to disenfranchise those without money who weren’t voting Tory. And about how her dancing with Reagan somehow brought down the Berlin Wall.
It’s a dog’s breakfast. The resolution the film seeks is getting her to deal with her husband’s passing as a way of making peace with her past. We don’t care. We’re not given a reason to care about this fictional milestone she’s trying to achieve, and the sympathy we feel is only because we feel sympathy, naturally, for the old and infirm.
But nothing beyond that, I’m sorry to say, Mags. About the only good thing she inspired is a lot of great punk music abusing her and her wicked, wicked ways, but even that provides me, the viewer, with little to chew on or enjoy through watching this flick.
Still, one can marvel at Streep’s performance and physical transformation, and watch it imagining what it would be like if she could have appeared in a better film.
5 times absolute power corrupts, and an absolute shitload of hairspray corrupts decent humans absolutely out of 10
“This lot seems bound to do the same... but they will rue the day.” – we all did once you came to power, dearest Maggie – The Iron Lady