“It used to be about trying to do something – now it’s about trying to be someone”
The Iron Lady portrays the life of Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep); the story of her early life and rise to political power is embedded in the storyline of her struggle with dementia in old age. She remains a controversial political figure to this day, admired by some and despised by others, and although there are some issues surrounding the film and how it came about, it does an excellent job at humanizing her instead of judging or glorifying her.
Considering her admirable resilience and persistence in her journey getting into such a male dominated field as politics – which was exponentially true back in her day – the film appears to put more emphasis on the cold and foggy winter of this exceptional woman’s life, living among her memories and hallucinations, lonely and confused. As a depiction of dementia the film is very sophisticated and convincing and lays down the cruel reality of how the disease doesn’t pick and choose; even the once determined and vigorous mind evaporates due to its destruction. The heavy focus on her late years and dementia instead of her active years and years in power is what most people find an issue with, for our purpose however it is exactly what makes this movie an important piece in the collection of films depicting dementia. Despite the disease, Mrs. Thatcher’s character shines through and there are a few brilliant remarks that keep her spirit alive even as she is struggling with her condition.
“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.”
Controversy and Ethics
An important controversy around the movie was its production. When the film premiered Thatcher was still alive and in very much the condition that the film so realistically portrayed her in; old, weak and fragile and confused. This raised the question of whether it is ethical to make a film about someone’s battle with any disease while they are still alive and not well. Consent is another major problem in case of dementia or any neurodegenerative disease – how could a person in their late stages of dementia agree to be portrayed in their most vulnerable state? Isn’t this approach to a biopic eroding said person’s image that they had built up prior to their disease and showcasing this new state alters the public perception that they earned with their life’s work? When putting the biography of a hugely influential person on the big screen, it may not be the most sensitive thing to portray them with the emphasis placed on them slipping into dementia. Meryl Streep gives an incredible performance and makes Thatcher’s disoriented and confused stage in dementia believable and extremely life-like. On the other hand, it is debateable if this is what the real Mrs. Thatcher would want to be remembered by instead of her active years of which the film only showed snippets of considering their relevance.
What approach to take is a difficult question when working from real (and still alive!) material, and not only a figment of the imagination. Similarly to Iris (2001), The Iron Lady is very convincing and genuine in its portrayal of dementia. However, since they both depict real-life, well-known characters, the question of the propriety of their chosen focus in emphasizing their late years with dementia instead of their active years remains to be answered. It seems that it doesn’t do justice to their lives to centre a biography around their late struggles with dementia. However, for the purpose of awareness and more insight into the disease and its nature, these films have a far reach, influencing people’s perceptions of dementia on a large scale. It could even prove a useful concept, as through these intellectual and influential figures one can realize just how much is lost with the disease due to the stark contrast between the selves. Unfortunately, in case of The Iron Lady, as incredibly well-made of a film it is, the fact that Mrs. Thacher was still very much struggling herself when the film debuted leaves one with mixed feelings towards the creators.