"The Iron Lady," the new biopic starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, was controversial before audiences even saw it, largely because of its portrayal of the aging former prime minister's dementia.
The current UK prime minister, David Cameron, suggested the movie was premature and shouldn't have been made while Thatcher was alive. Her former public-relations adviser, Tim Bell, called it "rubbish," while her former Tory rival Michael Heseltine dubbed it "distasteful."
The movie's primary theme is loss: of Thatcher's friends to terrorist bombs; of her prime ministership to rebellious former allies; of her husband, Denis, to illness; and of her once-brilliant mind to the ravages of age. "The Iron Lady's" creators audaciously analogize their film to King Lear.
Contrary to the critics, framing Thatcher's story with her current dementia, which her daughter has written about, is not intrinsically disrespectful. Nor does it necessarily undercut her accomplishments.
The problem, rather, is that grafted on to what could be an affecting story of greatness and decline is an invidious, and gratuitous, moral. Call it the Gospel According to Anna Quindlen, the writer and columnist who enshrined its maxims in a commencement speech she wrote in 1999 and eventually turned into the best-selling book "A Short Guide to a Happy Life." "No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in the office," she instructed. "Don't ever forget the words my father sent me on a postcard last year: "˜If you win the rat race, you're still a rat.'"
The film presents Thatcher as just such a rat -- a woman who too zealously pursued public achievement and spent way too much time at the office. Rather than universal loss, the loneliness of her old age represents a kind of karmic payback for her hubris in seeking to leave something more to history than her genes.
We get the first hint of this message as the elderly Thatcher wistfully watches home movies of her young family playing at the seashore. "You can rewind it, but you can't change it," Denis counsels. (Long dead, he's a figment of her imagination who serves, as former Thatcher speechwriter John O'Sullivan observes, as the film's version of a Greek chorus.) What exactly would she want to change? The vacation movie contains no policy decision. It must be something about motherhood. "They grow up so fast," she says.
The next hint comes when, as a young mother in 1959, Thatcher succeeds in winning a seat in Parliament. She gets in the car to drive to Westminster, with her twins running behind her crying, "Mommy, don't go" and "But you promised!" As she hurries to Parliament, she scrapes toys off the dashboard.
Finally, her sins are made explicit. We see Thatcher giving her teenage daughter, Carol, a driving lesson. They have a wild time on the road. Thatcher grabs the steering wheel, forcing the car to swerve right (get it?) to avoid an oncoming driver who is dangerously straddling the center line. Mother and daughter come into the house laughing. But this happy bonding quickly breaks down when Margaret announces her intention to run for Conservative Party leader.
"I thought I was having a driving lesson, but it was all about my mother!" yells Carol, storming out of the room.
Denis, still alive in this flashback, then reminds his wife that he's told her that "business is a bit rocky and the doctor says I need a rest." Insensitive to his problems, she prattles on about running for party leader. "You're insufferable, Margaret," he says. "You know that?"
When she responds with talk of duty and public service, he snaps, "Don't call it duty! It's ambition that's got you this far -- ambition! The rest of us -- me, the children, we can all go to hell! Don't worry about me," he concludes, with a mixture of resignation and sarcasm, "I'll be fine."
Recalling the scene, the phantom Denis asks how many days it took her to realize he'd gone to South Africa. "When did I lose track of everyone?" she muses.
And here comes the moral: "You were too busy climbing the greasy pole."
No wonder she wound up lonely and demented. The Iron Lady was just out for herself, a self-centered rat who missed the important things in life. At least that's what a viewer who knew only the movie might suppose.
This crucial scene is worse than fabricated. It twists real events to make its moralistic point.
In the real world, Denis Thatcher, who was something of a workaholic himself, did in fact take a sabbatical in South Africa and Switzerland -- in 1964, a full decade before Margaret ran for party leader and for reasons that had little to do with his wife. On his return, he sold the family business to a larger company.
And Margaret Thatcher did indeed give her daughter driving lessons. After a professional instructor terrified Carol with a rush-hour trip through London's busy Sloane Square, Margaret persuaded her daughter not to give up. "Thanks to her," Carol Thatcher writes in her 2008 memoir "A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl," "I eventually passed my test." That, too, happened years before Thatcher ran for party leader. Her children, born in 1953, were adults during Thatcher's years as head of the Conservative Party. Carol was in fact taking her law exams as the Tories were casting their party-leader votes -- a nice bit of parallel tension that the movie skips.
It skips a lot of things. In the entire movie, there is only one policy discussion, with U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig about the Falkland Islands, that might be called an argument rather than a slogan. The Iron Lady never explains the coal miners strike or mentions the raging controversy over stationing U.S. nuclear cruise missiles in Britain. It doesn't include Thatcher's assessment that Mikhail Gorbachev was "a man I can do business with" or show her delivering her 1984 party congress speech only hours after being bombed out of her Brighton hotel -- a potentially riveting scene. It doesn't include the famous lines "the lady's not for turning," "there is no alternative," or "there is no such thing as society." It never explains how she won three general elections.
A two-hour film obviously can't include everything. But this movie's choices all tend toward a consistent end. They drain the content out of Thatcher's public role, making it little more than a vehicle for her ambition, while embellishing her private life to portray her husband and daughter as justifiably resentful and her old age as haunted by regret. (Her son, Mark, stays out of this picture.) You would never know that Carol describes her parents' marriage as "truly a meeting of minds" or that she depicts her mother with great affection as a "superwoman" who crafted elaborate cakes for her children's birthdays, faithfully attended school parents' nights and took her kids to enjoy the pageantry of the opening of Parliament.
In the days of the old Hollywood Code, female characters were inevitably punished if they strayed from traditional sexual mores. Today, female characters (and many men as well) must suffer if they violate a different, unwritten code. This new code declares that one's worth depends on personal relationships, not public actions, and that sacrificing family time for the sake of achievement is nothing but short-sighted selfishness. Hollywood enforces the Gospel According to Anna Quindlen.
What matters, then, is not the nature of Thatcher's policies, or even the quality of her real-world family relations. It's that she dared to forge her identity in public, through what she did rather than what people she cared about, and that she did it very well. For that unseemly daring, we must see her suffer.
Hollywood has no trouble with public women as long as they are hereditary monarchs, who have no choice about their role. It can deal with the power of Elizabeth I, who had to rule to survive. But the more democratic, liberal power that arises from the combination of ambition, competence and popular appeal -- the power of a Margaret Thatcher or, for that matter, a Miranda Priestly of "The Devil Wears Prada" (another Streep character) - - is more problematic. A grocer's daughter who becomes prime minister could be anyone (even if she is in fact an extraordinarily gifted person). Her ambition thus casts doubt on the audience's own choices, or at the very least poses an alternative to them. Some people do in fact die regretting their unfulfilled ambitions and uncompleted work. The Gospel According to Anna Quindlen is not always true.
In an interview with Collider.com, screenwriter Abi Morgan described "The Iron Lady" as a "very feminist film," noting that it had a female writer, director and star. She also acknowledged Thatcher's "extraordinary" ability to combine homemaking and child-rearing first with her legal studies and later with her political career. "What's interesting about her," Morgan said, "is that I don't think she felt the guilt that I think we feel. I think there's an inherent guilt that most people feel. The thing I think most women struggle with mostly is feeling guilty."
These supposedly feminist filmmakers could have portrayed Thatcher as an ambitious woman who had nothing to feel guilty about. Instead they chose to inject guilt where it did not belong. They obscured Thatcher's public accomplishments in a fog of private angst. The portrait of dementia isn't the problem. The way the film uses old age to punish a lifetime of accomplishment is.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She is the author of "The Future and Its Enemies" and "The Substance of Style," and is writing a book on glamour. The opinions expressed are her own.