The film “The Iron Lady” is surely one of Meryl Streep’s greatest acting achievements. Her interpretation of Margaret Thatcher at the height of her power is nothing short of brilliant; her depiction of the ailing, elderly, demented Maggie, sublime.Some critics have a different view of the film. It has been expressed by some, including Mrs. Thatcher’s children that the release of this film while the lady is still alive is insensitive, and that portraying her dementia so graphically, is intrusive. I beg to differ.
Whether you liked her politics or not, Margaret Thatcher was a public figure by her own volition and as such she remains a person of interest. She is, therefore, fair game for writers and movie makers, the same way Princess Diana was and still is. That Mrs. Thatcher’s power has diminished as she has aged and become confused, is as much a part of her story as were her years as Prime Minister.
That point aside, a high caliber film like this could do much to get us sensitized to the plight of people who grow old and then suffer the indignity of losing their memory. It doesn’t seem to come naturally to us as a society. Dementia, and Alzheimer's in particular, seem to have become the leprosy of our generation. Yet our population is aging quickly now and many of us will personally know the despair of losing some cognitive abilities or the plight of watching a loved one go through that. Should we not stop treating the elderly as though they are invisible or already dead? Should we not applaud a film that tackles the subject head-on and with great sensitivity?
The film does an excellent job of representing how those with dementia experience their losses. We cannot know, of course, if Mrs. Thatcher really sees and hears her late husband speak to her as the movie depicts, but we surely can imagine how grief over the loss of her spouse might make her faded memories come to life, perhaps as a coping mechanism to dull her crippling emotional pain. Who, watching that very human process unfold in the film could find that offensive other than someone uncomfortable with their own process of aging?
Of course, not everyone is as lucky as Mrs. T. who lives in a large house with staff to look after her. Most elders have to fend for themselves and when they are no longer capable, they are placed in institutions where they are reduced to living in a place they do not recognize and which holds no memories for them. The medical world uses a term to explain the mental decline of severely demented elders: they refer to it as social death, as opposed to biological death. People with full-blown dementia are often deemed to be of no further use, and are, therefore, considered to be socially dead. This is perhaps what Ms. Streep portrayed best in the film; she made an elderly woman who happened to be Margaret Thatcher, seem very human and even endearing in her present frailty.
The Iron Lady is not a film about Margaret Thatcher so much as it is about the discomfort and anguish of watching an elderly woman fade away.