Meryl Streep and The Iron Lady: A Somewhat Feminist Perspective

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How does one review history? Or a life, at that?

 

Unquestionably, Margaret Thatcher was a powerful figure in international politics and her unwavering policies earned both the praise and the ire of many. While she rose to power and did what had to be done during her stint as Britain’s Prime Minister, it was the very same unwavering policies that made her lose her supporters and forced her to relinquish her position as head of Britain’s Conservative Party.

 

Many people will remember her as being The Iron Lady, forceful, strong, determined and always outspoken–commendable qualities, to be sure–but qualities that can lead to abuse and simple stubbornness. All that considered, the movie present a somewhat surprising and different side of Margaret Thatcher. While the movie represented a period of British history with great clarity and accuracy albeit in a pastiche of memories,

it was not about British politics or British politicians or even about the public life of Margaret Thatcher.
The film began and ended with an old woman who clearly has some difficulty walking. She is faced with the task of clearing out her dead husband’s closets, sorting out clothes and shoes and other bric-a-brac. All told, it takes her a couple of days to complete the task in between a doctor’s appointment and a dinner. The woman has not been able to let go of her husband’s memory and with every object she spies, every person she meets, every photograph or memento she comes across more memories of her husband and her past life rush back. She finds herself talking to her husband who really isn’t there, seeing him lurking in every corner of her life. This quite naturally might have alarmed her doctor or secretary or even her daughter and son, but she gently denies what she is experiencing, putting on a strong and brave facade that belie her confusion, self-doubt and deep feelings of loss. Only when she finally is able to send her husband’s ghost literally and figuratively packing does she finally gather enough strength and courage to complete her task. And then life must go on.

 

It is this frail, bent, confused, lost old woman that Meryl Streep so masterfully portrays. Despite the brave tilt of the head and determined, albeit handicapped gait, Streep’s Margaret Thatcher is just another aging woman mourning her loss, experiencing confusion and disorientation as a result of loss. Streep shows her audiences a woman not unlike others, who is human and subject to the frailties of the race as she approaches the end of a long, difficult life that has been a battle–nay a war–for all that she thought was right. To the end, she remains obstinate–as the ghost of Denis Thatcher made her state it herself–and in a sad state of denial. We see MT in a completely different light in this film, which highlights her journey from a young unknown grocer’s daughter who was more interested in politics and the public good than a woman of her times would normally have been, to being an MP and eventually the Prime Minister of one of the most powerful nations in the world. Her rise to power was unprecedented in the Western World, and her stance was always what she thought was for the greater good of England. Never mind that she was many times contradicted by her ministers and advisers. She retained her obstinacy and refused to see reason other than hers. When she is finally faced with certain defeat, she chooses to take a graceful exit, although with reservations. This graciousness and control in the face of adversity and emotional turmoil in the face of defeat is not what everyone saw when the real MT stepped down from office. It is the public persona that she consistently displayed that earned her the title of The Iron Lady, no matter what she truly felt inside. And it is Meryl Streep who shows us the woman struggling within, the woman smothered by her beliefs and principles insofar as politics were concerned, so that perhaps only her husband knew who she truly was–and then, again, maybe not.

And thus, may I conclude that I think the film is simply brilliant.

 

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ALBERT NOBBS: What does it mean to be a woman in Victorian Ireland?

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I enjoy watching movies, mostly because of the sheer entertainment I get out of them, which is what, I suspect, why most people watch movies. I have to confess a partiality to Zip! Zap! Zoom! movies with lots of action or lots of mystery or both. I won’t watch movies that are violent for the sake of violence, so you’ll never see a review of the Saw movies nor will you hear about Freddy Kruger and his ilk. Many times, I will or won’t watch a movie because of the cast. You just know that movies with certain actors or actresses in them will be good. One such actor—or actress, in this case—that I would watch is Glenn Close, who is up there on my list with Meryl Streep. Ms. Close seems to like to take on roles with a special challenge in them, roles that push the envelope, in a manner of speaking.

As the character Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close has, once again, challenged our ideas of what is usual. She plays a woman who has chosen to pretend to be a man just so she can get a job that helps her survive through an economically depressed Ireland during the Victorian Era. She has kept up the pretense for nearly 40 years so that everyone believes she is a man. Albert’s one driving ambition is to eventually open his own tobacconist shop and saves every farthing he makes from tips and hides his money under a floor board in his room. He believes he is content with his life and seeks nothing more until he meets the painter Hubert Page, who turns out to be another woman like him. Befriending Hubert, he finds that Hubert has a wife who is a milliner, and they live together in a cozy home where the wife keeps shop. Albert now dreams of having a wife as well, who will share his dreams, and sets his sights on the pretty Helen Dawes. Helen, however, is a bit of a flirt and has set her sights on Joe Macken, who plots to convince Albert to fund his desire to migrate to America and uses Helen to get at Albert’s money. Before long, Helen finds herself pregnant and Albert is desperate because he has also promised Helen he will take care of her but doesn’t really want the burden of a wife and child. Meanwhile, Hubert loses his wife to typhoid fever, which nearly takes Albert as well. When Albert finds that Hubert is alone, he proposes a partnership, not realizing that Hubert was truly in love with his wife. This realization pushes Albert to reassess his feelings and he realizes that he now dreams of Helen as his wife and takes more active steps to assure there that he will care for and love her and her child, convincing her that Joe has no intentions of bringing her to America with him. When confronted, Joe becomes violent and Albert is fatally hurt in the process. As fate would have it, Helen meets Hubert again and tells him of her plight. Hubert sees this as a way of both helping Albert achieve his dream and rebuilding his own family life.

Insofar as acting is concerned, Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, who plays Hubert Page, are perfectly convincing in their roles. You know, in the back of your mind, that they are women, yet you see them as men in the story and sympathize with them as men. Or is it that you empathize with them because they are women and you understand that? The characters are solid, well-developed characters that gave us an excellent picture of the working class in Victorian Ireland. The sets and costumes were impeccable. Overall, an outstanding film production.

What makes this stand out more is the brilliance of the story. Not many movies make you think…and this one made me think for several days before I could even begin to write anything about it. I think that is the mark of a brilliant script. The story makes us ask questions: What was life really like for the working class in Ireland? This is a class that is rarely represented. We are familiar with the problems farmers had as well as the general poor. We are familiar with the upper crust, but we hear very little about the working class—people in service industries. Did women really have to disguise themselves as men just to find or keep certain jobs? What was it like for transgender people? What sort of lives did they live? Did having to pretend to be men eventually change the women so that they eventually thought and felt like men? Or is it a latent homosexuality that is only brought out by extreme and extenuating circumstances?

What is probably more significant is that the movie comes at a time when same sex marriages are once again at the forefront of moral and social issues. Recent actions by religious groups have us thinking about individual rights and freedom. The movie shows us that same sex marriages can work and that they are no less human than heterosexual marriages. Beyond that, the movie makes us ask if such relationships should be ostracized or, worse, condemned. In situations where heterosexual relationships fail, is it not possible that a same sex relationship might actually succeed? Moreover, how much more different—or difficult—is it for women than it is for men?

That the movie has come out at this time is timely. That is has come out at all is revolutionary. It will definitely make us question gender roles and relationships and perhaps look at a new order of things.

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