Two quick facts about biopics: they can be a bullet train to an Oscar (Since 2004, Ray, I Walk the Line, The Queen, The King’s Speech, and The Iron Lady have won a total of ten, including two for best actor and three for best actress). The second thing is I haven’t been overwhelmed by any of them.
I blame it on Frances Roberts. Actually she was Dr. Frances Roberts and this elderly lady of the south was my academic advisor as well as my professor for senior seminar in history back when as I like to tell our children, there was a lot less history to learn. She discouraged us from writing on contemporary figures/issues because not enough time had passed to allow for historical perspective to be formed. It’s a pretty simple idea really, often critical documents and important information aren’t released or known until years after a person’s death. Furthermore, in the case of a political figure (like Margaret Thatcher or King George VI), there are numerous other issues that need to be researched and understood before the such a life can be placed in it’s proper context. This seems to have ruined me from enjoying biopics on contemporary people.
My struggle with The Iron Lady though has less to do with historical perspective and more to do with the framework employed in telling Lady Thatcher’s story. Flashback can be a fine way of telling a story, but to choose to devote more than half of the film to showing a person, still living, struggling in the downward spiral of dementia seems callous and well out of proportion. What kind of impression are we to get of someone when the dominant lens we look through is that of dementia? Is there anyone who would like their life to be viewed this way?
Both my mother and my mother-in-law suffer from dementia. It has diminished them considerably from the people they once were. If a stranger wanted to know about them, I wouldn’t dwell on their current condition but on what their lives were before like the onset of dementia. I’m not advocating denial of an obvious and troubling reality, just a merciful treatment of it.
There is mercy and tenderness in The Iron Lady. Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, is the prime practitioner as we see her rising to meet the different challenges involved in caring for her mother. Indeed, if this were a film about dementia, it would be better. But it’s not. It’s about the Iron Lady and the juxtaposition between that image of Lady Thatcher and her present state of helplessness is handled with all of the subtlety, taste, and nuance we’ve come to expect in our too-much-information culture.
Mercy makes for a better life and it would have made for a better film.