Ambiguity vs. Confusion: The Iron Lady

by Sonny Bunch on January 13, 2012

The Iron Lady is causing consternation in all corners of the journalistic world — no one is sure if it is a sympathetic portrayal of a woman with dementia, a rousing feminist success story, or a political cheap shot concocted by her enemies. Perhaps all of the above? More importantly, at least from a filmmaking perspective: Is this a case of intentional ambiguity or a confused filmmaker unsure of the argument she wants to make?

Centered on the life of Margaret Thatcher and anchored by yet another impressive performance from Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady both chronicles the dementia with which she struggles and her rise to power in the face of incredible obstacles and patriarchal smugness. Flipping back and forth between the “modern day” — in which she holds conversations with her long-deceased husband — and highlights of her career, the picture is both a success and a failure. On the one hand, it paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to live with dementia (one is reminded of the portrayal of schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind). While director Phyllidia Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan make the occasional misstep in this regard (the “departure” of Thatcher’s husband toward the end of the film, in particular, struck me as remarkably silly), it’s still an affecting portrait.

Where the movie fails, however, is in its discussion of Thatcher’s career. Given the amount of time we need to cover (some 40 years) and the amount of screen time dedicated to the proposition (perhaps an hour of the 105 minute running time), it should come as no shock that nothing is examined with any great care or detail. I particularly enjoyed David Denby’s take on the later years of her career: “In a particularly confused bit of sequencing, the filmmakers make it seem that Britain’s enormous economic growth spurt was brought about by her victory in the Falklands War, in 1982. How?”

Denby falls squarely in the “this was an unfair hit piece” camp, considering it “an oddly unsettling compound of glorification and malice that whirls around and winds up nowhere.” This is an interesting criticism coming from a liberal critic; conservative Kyle Smith gave it 3.5 stars out of 4 and raved “At its most moving, The Iron Lady shows us how one person, however unlikely, can change the world.” Virginia Postrel, meanwhile, read it has an indictment of women who work instead of staying at home to mind the family while one British tabloid, the name of which escapes me, condemned the film for focusing on Thatcher’s dementia, going so far as to label it a political attack.

Such disparate attacks, all focused on the same film — is this the result of intentional ambiguity on the part of the filmmakers, or was it just sloppy work on their part?

Ambiguity in film is one of the more uncritically celebrated concepts in modern filmmaking. Reviewers and audiences alike don’t want to be force-fed ideas and plot points; we hope to be able to figure things out for ourselves, free from hand-holding pedantry that MAKES A POINT and MAKES IT CLEARLY. Much of the success of Streep’s most recent critical hit, Doubt, was based on the ambiguity at the heart of the film’s story. Was Streep the only defender of a child being raped by a priest? Was the priest unfairly accused of a horrible crime by a busybody nun? Assuming the priest is a rapist, is the boy’s mother a bigger monster for turning a blind eye? Or is Streep meddling in things she simply should keep her nose out of?* Another fine example of ambiguity is Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in which the protagonist discovers that he may have photographed a murder while idly shooting pictures in a park. As he examines blow ups of his proofs, however, the image becomes fuzzier, less concrete — and more salacious. Did our swinging London hipster witness a killing, and does he have a duty to report it to the authorities? Should he detain the mysterious woman who comes to visit his studio (and causes his prints to be pilfered)? Or was it all just a figment of an overactive imagination?

Ambiguity can quickly careen into confusion, however. See, for example, Sucker Punch, which I went on about at some length here. Here is a situation in which the director’s desire for ambiguity about what was “really” happening — which layer of reality is most real, so to say — was actively detrimental to the picture and hurt the audience’s ability to connect to what was happening onscreen.

In the case at hand, I lean toward confusion: Lloyd and Morgan simply tried to do too much in too short a running time. Instead of focusing on, say, Thatcher’s rise to power or struggles while in power or even on her time out of office, they tried to give us a taste of everything in the great woman’s life, all in an hour and forty-five minutes. The work was bound to suffer as a result.

*With some of these questions you might notice that “ambiguity” shades into “moral monstrousness.” Such is modern life, I guess.

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