“The Iron Lady” (2011). Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Anthony Head, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd, Nicholas Farrell. Director: Phyllida Lloyd. Screenplay: Abi Morgan. http://weinsteinco.com/sites/iron-lady/
One of the hallmark principles of contemporary metaphysical thought is that we each create our own reality (and in a highly personal way, I might add) through our beliefs and intents. But, as widely as this notion has been embraced, rarely has it been portrayed cinematically as eloquently as it is in the new biographical character study, “The Iron Lady.”The film examines the life of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) (Meryl Streep) from the protagonist’s personal perspective. As the picture opens, we see the “Iron Lady” (a nickname the P.M. earned for her rigidly conservative political views, particularly regarding Communism) as an elderly recluse, her mental and physical health failing after a series of small strokes. She’s prone to engaging in lengthy conversations with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), who died many years before but somehow manages to “appear” on cue. She seems adrift in delusion, detached from most everyone, including those attempting to care for her, such as her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) and an assortment of domestic, personal and medical handlers.
After years of floating about in this psychological fog, however, Margaret quietly starts taking steps to get her life back. She embarks on this process by deciding—finally—to sort through and dispense with the personal effects of her late husband, possessions that she’s been holding onto for years. But, by doing this, she opens a Pandora’s Box of memories of her personal and political life. Recollections of her past relentlessly come flooding back to her (an experience not unlike the so-called “life review” that many contend we go through after we pass on). This deluge of memories forces Margaret to come to grips with what she’s done, for better or worse, as well as the rewards she received and the prices she paid for her successes and failures, both personally and politically.
Through flashbacks, we see Margaret’s younger self (Alexandra Roach) as a clerk in the family grocery during World War II, as an outspoken aspiring politician in post-war England and as the love interest of the successful young businessman who would become her eventual husband (Harry Lloyd). From there we witness her rise through the ranks of British government, first as a member of Parliament, then as Secretary of State for Education and Science, then as leader of the Conservative Party, and eventually as England’s longest-serving Prime Minister of the Twentieth Century (and the first woman ever to hold that office).
Once in power, we witness the challenges Margaret faced in dealing with such issues as Britain’s labor unions, the sagging English economy, the Falklands War with Argentina, the terrorist attacks of the Irish Republican Army (which took the life of her trusted advisor, Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), and nearly cost Margaret her own life through an unsuccessful assassination attempt), and heady international affairs involving the European Union and the end of the Cold War. And, through it all, we see the depth of her famous (or infamous) steely resolve to see her plans through.
On her climb up the ladder of success, Margaret triumphantly overcomes the many roadblocks thrown up by the privileged Parliamentary old boys’ club, obstacles intentionally designed to thwart the upward mobility of women and those of middle class background. But, in spite of her successes, Margaret also paid some high prices for her accomplishments. While she had her allies, she also made her share of enemies in government, the international arena and the public at large. Her family life frequently took a back seat to her public calling, straining relationships with her children and even her beloved Denis. And eventually she paid a tremendous price politically, when her inflexibility cost her the support of longstanding ally Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), her control of the Conservative Party and, in the end, the leadership of her country. It’s these costs that the elder Margaret must come to terms with as she struggles to take back her life.
At its metaphysical core, “The Iron Lady” showcases one individual’s efforts at practicing conscious creation, the philosophy that maintains we each create our own reality. This theme is perhaps best summed up by a quote from the protagonist: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny! What we think, we become.” In saying this, Margaret embodies many of this discipline’s principles, particularly those outlined in author Jane Roberts’s book The Nature of Personal Reality, one of the cornerstone works on this philosophy and how it operates.Of course, we would be wise to monitor the elements that go into what we ultimately create, with a particular eye on being prepared for everything that comes with this process. To do otherwise is to practice what I have termed “creation by default” or “un-conscious creation,” whereby we put out our intents and inattentively let the chips fall where they may. Acts of creation always come with consequences, some of which we may dislike (a painful lesson that Margaret wrestles with in the course of her personal reflections). This is particularly true when we allow ambition to become a significant part of the mix, for its forcefulness can amplify the impact of the outcomes; the more we “push the Universe,” our divine collaborator in this process, the more exacerbated the results will be. Margaret learns this the hard way, too, especially when she’s challenged by her peers for the leadership of her party; her unwavering views, coupled with a penchant for “lecturing” her colleagues, play a huge role in bringing about her eventual political downfall.
Many have been highly critical of this film for allegedly playing fast and loose with “the facts,” even going so far as to say that it gives viewers a sanitized revisionist history of Thatcher’s life and career. But it’s on that point that I believe many of the picture’s detractors have missed the movie’s intent. “The Iron Lady,” in essence, is a character study, not a historical chronicle of the protagonist’s life, examining her outlooks and motivations from her own personal viewpoint (not unlike what the excellent made-for-cable production “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” did for the legendary British actor). It’s meant to provide a look at what she was thinking and feeling about the historical events portrayed in the film, not what an outside, “objective” historian might have to say about her life and career. In that sense, then, the picture is more about the life of a person who just happened to be a British Prime Minister than about the life of a British Prime Minister who just happened to be a person.
Some have also been critical of the film’s portrayal of Thatcher as a dementia patient lost in a sea of delusion, suggesting that someone of her stature and character would never engage in acts as seemingly outlandish as protracted, hallucinatory conversations with her dead husband. Such speculation, they assert, is not only disrespectful but also patently unrealistic. But how do we know with certainty that this isn’t happening with her? Are we inside Margaret’s consciousness to verify such activities? If, indeed, we each create our own reality, then who’s to say that such an existence couldn’t be created with the thoughts of one’s mind, even for a respectable public figure like Margaret Thatcher. Besides, even if this portrayal is nothing more than a piece of fiction, that doesn’t automatically invalidate the narrative’s premise or format; fictional works based on the life events and personal ruminations of historical figures, including everyone from Mark Twain to LBJ, have been staples of Broadway and public television for years, so why not in the movies, too?
Lastly, many have been critical of the movie’s depiction of Thatcher’s politics. However, given the very personal nature of the story, I’d like to hope that audiences can see past the politics and look instead to the picture’s sublime metaphysical content. Again, the film is a fine portrayal of the conscious creation process in action as seen through the eyes of someone who just happens to be a prominent public figure, not a history lesson re-created through a conventional docudrama format.
Many aspects of “The Iron Lady,” such as Streep’s positively phenomenal performance, come as no surprise (she handily does for Margaret Thatcher what she did for Julia Child in “Julie and Julia”). But other elements of the picture are indeed revelatory, such as the skillful direction of filmmaker Phyllida Lloyd, who has stepped up her game remarkably from her last outing in the truly abysmal “Mama Mia!” High marks also go to Broadbent for an excellent (and thus far largely overlooked) performance and to the film’s makeup department for coming up with aging prosthetics that actually look realistic for once.
Streep’s portrayal, however, is, by far, the film’s greatest asset, having earned her a Golden Globe Award for best actress in a drama. She also received nominations for this performance in the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards competition and in the recent Critics Choice Awards program, which also gave the picture a nod for its outstanding makeup work. It’s virtually assured that Streep will also pick up an Academy Award nomination for this role when the Oscar nominees are announced next week.
Many moviegoers have characterized “The Iron Lady” as a fine performance wrapped up in a mediocre film, though I believe that assessment really sells the picture short. It’s a captivating metaphysical exploration of how we create our own reality—and how we should exercise care in doing so, because, as the protagonist so articulately and accurately observes, “what we think, we become.”
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.