Sunday, March 25, 2012

Maggie, Maggie, out!

Last night I finally went to see the film The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep. I had intended to avoid it, since I assumed it would be a typical media trashing of a conservative political figure, and I find such spectacles as predictable as they are tedious.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for my assumption, since the fact is that, in order for a woman to achieve the praise of the mainstream media, it is not sufficient that she be ambitious, accomplished, creative, original, or brilliant – she must also be a liberal. Indeed, a woman may be a world leader or an artistic genius, but if she is not left-leaning in her politics, she will be the object of remorseless mockery and vicious attacks by the left. And, needless to say, no matter how vile and personal their assaults are, they will get away with it.

And so, I went to the film solely to see Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance. I was not only surprised, I was astonished.

To the writer’s credit, he chose not to frame the story as that of Britain’s first female prime minister and its leading voice for conservatism, but rather, as that of an old woman struggling to exorcise the ghost of her husband from her life. Fully half the film takes place in Margaret Thatcher’s retirement, when she is ill and on the verge of dementia. Indeed, the flashbacks to her girlhood and her political career serve only to illustrate the character in the present-time story, as we witness her dealing with age, illness, regret, and her fear that she is losing her mind.

On the whole, I thought the rendering of the political aspect of the film was quite even-handed. And at some points, especially when she speaks of the need for people to return to self-reliance, to abandon their dependence on the government, to make sacrifices for the sake of the common good and their own characters, I kept thinking how relevant and how right her ideas are.

As for the performance: I have rarely seen anything to compare with it. I must admit that, while I have admired some of Meryl Streep’s work, I have never been a fan of hers. Yet, her Margaret Thatcher is the equal of Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth, or any of the work of Olivier or Orson Welles. It is, simply, a portrayal of breathtaking realism, delicacy, depth and truth. It is life itself. It is acting artistry.

She creates the character (with the help of marvelous make-up work) both macro-cosmically and micro-cosmically. She grasps and conveys the great sweep of the woman’s character and accomplishments. Yet I could not help admiring, even marveling, at her careful choice of gesture and vocal tonality, especially her use of her eyes, which dart left and right, rarely fixed on any one point, as though there is such a universe of thought and action inside her, she cannot be troubled by anything of passing interest before her. That her mind is constantly working, constantly searching for the strength and insight to make what she calls the hard choices is clear in every scene. As Meryl Streep portrays her, she is a woman for all seasons, as powerful as she is imperfect; as fated to public greatness as she is flawed in private life.

I was a recent college graduate living in London during the time Margaret Thatcher was in office, and I recall how all of my young friends hated her. Hated, loathed, despised and derided her mercilessly. In fact, they managed to persuade me to march in an anti-Thatcher demonstration, and I, a consummate leftie who never missed a chance to demonstrate, joined them. I remember they shouted, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out! At the time, I knew only that her government, as part of its austerity measures (which saved the British economy) had cut back on funding for milk in the schools. The slogan was, Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher! And some of the young people chanted: Maggie, withdraw, as your father should have done! All of which, as a twenty-one-year-old, I thought very clever and amusing.

But that was then and there, and this is here and now. And how I wish we had a leader with Margaret Thatcher's character and vision in this country today. Someone who will tell us the truth about who we have become and the crises we face, and the hard choices we will have to make to restore our nation's vitality. And who has the courage of the Iron Lady to make those choices.