Saturday, January 14, 2012

Nobody Does It Like Meryl Streep

True story: In the summer of 1987, my dad took the family on a three week vacation through England, Scotland, and Wales. We were living in Germany at the time, so we drove to Calais, France and boarded a ferry and arrived in Dover and drove up the east side all the way to Inverness, Scotland before making our way down the west side, into Wales and back into England. Part of the trip included a few days at the British Isles RLDS Reunion (a week long family camp in our church). I was a shy teenager and had to be nudged by my mom to make friends. I thought I would be the cool American and told the British church teens, "I really like your Prime Minister." To my shock, they HATED her. So much for making a good impression. They had asked if I liked Reagan, and I said that I did not. So, we had something in common. We did not like our leaders. This was well before I identified with "liberal". I probably didn't even know what the word meant at the time. But I was probably influenced into liking Thatcher because she received positive press in the United States. You have to admit, she was a tough lady and remains today as the model of female leadership.

Now comes her first major biopic, featuring the most versatile actress on the planet, Meryl Streep, who recently played Julia Childs. She was rather the obvious choice to play Margaret Thatcher, though I have to admit that the actress who played Prime Minister Thatcher at the end of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only was a dead ringer. I read at least three or four reviews of The Irony Lady and all but one was negative. Most of the criticism rests on the fact that 40% of the film deals with the present day Lady Thatcher, who is suffering from dementia. The Tories in the United Kingdom were livid about this film, which is understandable, considering that conservatives in our country went mad over James Brolin (Barbra Streisand's husband) playing Ronald Reagan in a TV movie several years ago.

Negative review or not, nothing was keeping me from seeing a biopic, especially a biopic about one of my favourite world leaders. Yeah, I know. Her policies were the same as Reagan policies and if I did not like Reagan, had I been born in Britain, I likely would not have liked Thatcher, either. But, she was a dynamic figure. A true icon among leaders. But, I also appreciate the hindsight of history. What happened, happened. The 1980s will always be enshrined as the Reagan-Thatcher era, with Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II playing a role in the drama of the last years of the Cold War.

I had hoped that The Iron Lady would have been released on Christmas Day nationwide, because my family was interested in seeing it and we would've gone to see it together. But, the release went wide on this weekend of the Golden Globes, probably to capitalize on Meryl Streep's Best Actress in a Drama nomination (the film's only nomination, I believe). The annoying thing is that there hasn't been a movie I was interested in seeing since October, which is unusual. In previous years, there is upwards of 5 movies or more that I want to see over the holiday season, which causes me to make tough choices for budgetary reasons. On this opening weekend, there is also another film that I want to see: A Dangerous Method, which is about a love triangle between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and their patient. The film promises to be an intriguing psychological drama. As I waited in line, I weighed my options back and forth: Thatcher or Jung, Thatcher or Jung? Thatcher won. Thatcher is used to winning.

The film begins in mundane routine. Thatcher is at a neighbourhood convenience store buying milk and no one seems to recognize her. Then she's back at her place eating breakfast and having a conversation with her husband, Denis, whom we learn shortly enough that he has long passed on. So begins the drama. Think A Beautiful Mind meets The Queen. The movie progresses through various timelines (similar to the flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks of Eastwood's J. Edgar), as we see the modern Lady Thatcher struggle with her dementia (mostly seeing and believing that her husband is still there with her), and then segues into her past, starting when she's a teenager and young woman. She meets and intrigues a nerdy young man who is captivated by her passion for politics and her intelligence. He's not intimidated by her and soon proposes to her. Margaret tells him that she won't be a wife who stands silently by a man, holding his hand. He tells her that's what he loves about her. I have to admit, I know very little about Denis Thatcher, but he has to be quite the psychologically secure man to be the "invisible" partner to the most famous female politician of our lifetime.

Thatcher loses her first race for Parliament, but not by much and her husband encourages her to run again and she wins in 1959. They have twins: a boy and a girl, and Thatcher becomes the only woman in Parliament. In 1974, she decides to run for leadership of the Conservative Party. The Labour Party is in power in the United Kingdom, so she's running to lead the party for the next election cycle. She gets advice on how to tone down her feminine ways (one of the suggestions was to get rid of the hats and to speak at a lower register so she doesn't sound "shrill"). Her advisers tell her not to run for just leader of the party, but to go all the way and become the first female Prime Minister. Thatcher reveals that she doesn't believe she'll ever see a female Prime Minister in her lifetime.

And yet, in 1979, the Conservative Party made history when Thatcher leads her party to victory in the elections and becomes the first female Prime Minister. Some of the scenes in the film are so stylishly choreographed, that it looks like the filmmakers copied some of the shots from another excellent biopic, Evita. I actually liked those moments in the film (music montages showing a group of male Members of Parliament and her Cabinet following her around the halls of Parliament).

I'm not up on my British history, but I remember knowing about the Falkland Islands War because I used to pretend that I was a fighter pilot in that war (I know...strange kid I was) during recess when my family lived on Hill AFB, Utah in the early 1980s. I was not aware of the Brighton Bombing, which could have killed the Prime Minister, the strikes, and the controversial budget cuts. This film features the highlights of her years in power and even includes her famous dance with President Reagan in a montage.

As for the film as a whole, it was a good biopic. It kept my interest and was never boring, like J. Edgar was. Though I don't think the device of using her dementia was a bad decision, there were a couple scenes where I thought it went too far (particularly the scene where she doesn't want her husband around anymore and turns up the volume of the TV, radio, and kitchen appliances so she could drown out his voices in her head; and the scene where he finally leaves her and she begs him not to go just yet). My best guess about why the filmmakers decided to use the dementia angle is probably to show that old age is not respecter of power. No matter how important and powerful we are in the prime of our lives, in the end, we are reduced to the slow shut down of our mental and physical capacity. This has to be one of the most humbling and terrifying experiences that await us. If the filmmakers eliminated the two scenes that I thought went too far regarding her dementia, they might have had more time to build up the intrigue of what ended her power. The film seemed to downplay it as Thatcher being overly critical of her cabinet in a meeting in which she acts as a school marm and dismisses everyone when her loyal aide turns in a policy brief that she edits on the spot, while launching acid-tongued criticisms.

I don't know the details of the drama behind her being challenged for the party leadership (like I said above, I'm not up on my British history) but I remember being shocked at the end of 1990 (I believe it was around Thanksgiving of that year) when she announced her resignation. America was building up a presence in Saudi Arabia with Operation Desert Shield, so it seemed a strange time for a world leader, especially one who stood tall against terrorism and dictatorships, to step down. After 11 and a half years, Thatcher left #10 Downing Street.

The movie is a good tribute to the Lady Thatcher and Meryl Streep shines as the woman the Soviets called "The Iron Lady." This is definitely worth seeing, though I liked The Queen much better (which was about Queen Elizabeth II's response to the death of Princess Diana). When I got home, I took my copy of Thatcher's The Downing Street Years off my shelf and skimmed through it, reading select passages. I'll have to read that book sometime this year (my big bedtime reading right now, though, is Condoleezza Rice's memoirs about her Bush years). As I thought about the movie, it struck me as amazing that in the 1980s, the three most famous women in the United Kingdom was a Prime Minister, a Queen, and a Princess. What an era! Who says women can't lead? I'm ready for America to have our first female president, but I want it to be someone good. Will it be Hillary Clinton? Kathleen Sebelius? Elizabeth Warren? Hopefully, whoever our first female chief executive will be, that she will be a Democrat, not a Republican! I don't think we have to worry, though. The Republicans have a pattern of choosing "pretty, but intellectually vapid" women for political office. Whoever does become that historic figure, one thing's for certain: she'll have to be as tough as Margaret Thatcher, the iconic trailblazer.

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