I wanted to do something special for my birthday.
Not that it is one of those big birthdays. Unless celebrating prime numbers is a secret American tradition.
So, special it was going to be. And it was.
I headed north to the Cinetopia (the theater with the great projection and sound I wrote about in tinker, tailor, soldier, bore) to see The Iron Lady. Meryl Streep’s uncanny portrayal of Margaret Thatcher.
Margaret Thatcher is admired by a lot of people. Even those who were not particularly fond of some (or all) of her policies.
That is why it is easy for everyone to enjoy this film. It is not about policy. In fact, it is often very difficult, based on this film, to figure out why this middle class woman was able to successfully navigate the reefs of grandee politics in the Conservative Party.
One reason, of course, is that she stood for something -- and the Conservative elite stood for very little. Or as one wag put it in the 1970s: the Socialists stood for everything and the Tories stood for nothing.
Any screenwriter who attempts to reduce a political life to the confines of a film is faced with a very real problem. How do you find the subject’s center? Where is its bottom? And how do you tell the tale in two hours?
It appeared that Abi Morgan had found that center in a little monologue put into Lady Thatcher’s mouth when her doctor tells her he understands how she feels about giving away her dead husband’s possessions.
People don’t ‘think’ any more. They ‘feel’. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘Oh I don’t feel comfortable with that.’ ‘Oh, I’m so sorry but we, the group were feeling...’
D’you know, one of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than thoughts and ideas.
Now thoughts and ideas. That interests me.
The problem is there are no ideas in the film at all. Just feelings. It is as if Meryl Streep stopped by to give an acting workshop on how to portray an ambitious woman. In the same vein as Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth II in The Queen.
And it is obvious the screenwriter simply gave up on trying to find the center of her subject. Much in the same way that Edmund Morris gave up on trying to write a straight biography of Ronald Reagan. Morris invented a fictional character (himself) to act as narrator.
Abi Morgan wanders down a similar path by allowing the long-dead Denis, Lady Thatcher’s husband, to act as an hallucinatory Greek chorus to carry along the narrative. The fact that the ghost bears almost no psychological relationship to the real Denis Thatcher does not matter. He is a convenient device to mouth the screenwriter’s thoughts.
But he doesn’t. There is no explanation of why the British people entrusted their nation to the Iron Lady -- or why her party eventually played Brutus to her Caesar. Well, other than the fact that their feelings were hurt.
But Meryl Streep can really act. As can the male British cast of male actors that surround her.
Like Churchill, who was chucked out by the British voters at the end of World War Two, Margaret Thatcher was jettisoned by the grandees on the very night she was celebrating the end of the Cold War.
Of course, this film tells us little about that. Instead, we get the vaguest of outlines on what was one of the most interesting political periods in British history.
It is a film worth seeing. But you will leave with the feeling that there must be something else to the woman portrayed.