The Iron Lady and A Separation

Personal notes


The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep doesn't simply play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady; she exudes her. With an intense concentration, Streep captures both the chipper intransigence of Britain's first female prime minister (from 1979 to 1990), and—with the aid of uncannily realistic old-age makeup and prosthetics—the lonely dementia of her dotage, into which we are told she is sunk today, at the age of 86.

Streep is brilliant, fully validating the decision by director Phyllidia Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) to go with an American actress in portraying an Englishwoman of such long familiarity. So it's odd to find this technically complex and naturalistic performance encased in such a resolutely old-fashioned, Hollywood-style biopic. I half expected to see Thatcher bumping into Greer Garson's Madame Curie in one of the film's many dream-world reveries.

The movie dutifully ticks off the highlights of Thatcher's career: the rise of the provincial grocer's daughter through the Conservative Party ranks to the top of the political order; her facing down of the powerful trade unions whose strikes were threatening to paralyze the country in the early 1980s; her condemnations of socialism and unflinching defense of free markets in the face of hooting derision in the House of Commons; her handling of the 1982 Falklands war, in which Britain controversially prevailed; and her unyielding condemnation of bomb-planting IRA terrorism. ("We have always lived alongside evil," the PM says. "But it has never been so impatient, so avid for carnage, so eager to carry innocence along with it into oblivion.")

The script, by Abi Morgan (Shame), steps lightly in a few areas, like Thatcher's opposition to international sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa; but the movie has no apparent partisan agenda. It presents the good and the bad (depending on one's political orientation) in episodic chunks before returning to its encompassing narrative—which is pure invention. We see the doddering Iron Lady in retirement, with gun-bearing guards discreetly tucked away among the softly carpeted hallways of her private residence, passing the isolated hours in affectionate conversation with her dead husband, Denis (a jolly Jim Broadbent). Amid all the flashbacks to earlier chapters of Thatcher's real life, which are abundantly documented, these squishy fantasy interludes—despite Streep's most winning efforts—are bizarre. There is also something basically distasteful about using the infirmities of a living person's old age as fodder for such syrupy speculation. And when the aged Thatcher begins to fear that she really is descending into terminal hallucination, and Denis inexplicably turns hostile ("If I'm dead, who are you talking to?), the effect is jarringly unpleasant.

Despite all the historical embroidery, the movie is a weeper of an unabashed sort not seen in, as I say, many, many years. There's surely an audience for this sort of thing, and it may embrace The Iron Lady. Those uninclined to leaky sentimentalism, however, may wish the film's focus had remained entirely on the actual Margaret Thatcher. Like her or loathe her, we want to see more of this woman and her unbending convictions. At one point we watch her telling a clutch of spineless colleagues, "If you take the tough decisions, yes, people will hate you today—but thank you for generations." Or at least not soon forget you.

A Separation

I know I wasn't expecting one of the year's best movies to come from Iran, but here it is. In A Separation, writer-director Asghar Farhadi presents us with a minor domestic dispute—an argument, an angry shove—and keeps us riveted as it builds into a storm of desperate moral evasions that threaten to capsize several characters' lives.

The story is set in Tehran, but this is not the capital city of mad mullahs familiar from international news reports. Here, we are among the urban middle class, possibly the sort of people who still seethe with resentment over the country's rigged 2009 presidential election. Their homes are stocked with up-to-date dishwashers and widescreen TVs; their children are provided with musical instruments and English-language tutors; their family cars are very nice, and women drive them. Religion is a fundamental presence in their lives (there's a public telephone hotline to be called for doctrinal advice), but fanatical Islamism is nowhere in evidence. (Whether this is a necessary evasion on the director's part is an open question.)

The movie begins bluntly, with a squabbling married couple in a judge's chamber, making their separate cases directly to the camera. The wife, Simin (Iranian star Leila Hatami), wants the family to move abroad, for their 11-year-old daughter's sake, and has acquired a visa for this purpose. The husband, Nader (a compelling Peyman Maadi), refuses to go, since it would mean leaving behind his father, who is a part of the household and is afflicted with Alzheimer's; nor will he permit their child, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), to leave the country with her mother. And so Simin wants a divorce; but the judge, unswayed by her grounds for one, won't grant it.

Frustrated, Simin opts for a separation: she moves out of the family apartment and goes to live with her parents, perhaps to wait the situation out. But she also arranges for a domestic replacement—a devout younger woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat)—to help tend Nader's disoriented father. When Razieh discovers that her new duties involve washing the older man and helping change his clothes, she is distraught, since such intimate assistance violates a religious precept. Although she and her husband, an unemployed hothead named Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), are in serious financial difficulties, Razieh decides she must quit this new job.

There's no way to go into much further detail, since the story sustains our fascination through a series of unexpected revelations and ethical twists. Nader confronts the departing Razieh over some missing money. Razieh, who is pregnant, is injured. Later, at a hospital, it's discovered that her unborn child has died. Hodjat is enraged. Nader is charged with murder. A magistrate begins interrogating witnesses—an apartment-house neighbor, Termeh's tutor, Termeh herself—in an effort to determine who knew what and did what when. The characters writhe with guilt and anger and secret knowledge. Finally, at the end, one of them must make a pivotal decision.

The story has a particular resonance in its social context: These are people for whom commitment to truth is a profound obligation, no matter the consequences. But when the consequences matter in such crucial ways, there's a very modern temptation toward moral nuance. And as might not be the case with many in the West, it tears at their souls.     

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.

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  1. Note how leaders of agricultural city-Statism like to name themselves.

    They’re inanimate Steel.

    Not human. Part of the Machine.

    Then they need no empathy. They’re Steel.

    1. Uh, note that Thatcher didn’t name herself the Iron Lady; the Russians did. Following a forceful anti-Communist speech she gave in 1976, the state-controlled Soviet press began referring to her as the “Iron Lady”, a moniker these clueless Commie apparatchiks thought would be understood in Britain as a hurtful insult. It was supposed to be something that would damage her prestige, not enhance it. Again, it wasn’t Maggie’s idea – but she surely didn’t mind it a bit.

      1. Seems that Capitalism takes to Communist-originated metaphors quite well.

        My observation still stands, since the impersonal Machinima Monicker enhanced her standing in the West.

        Would you call that a market failure, or market victory, that Communist-originated metaphors are so quickly accepted in Britain and America?

        1. Actually she was better known before that as Maggie the Milk-Snatcher from her time as Education Secretary when she ended free milk for primary school kids. And the Iron Lady thing was regarded as a bit of a joke initially, since when she got elected it was a given that British PM’s all ended up doing a U-turn under union pressure. Turned out not so much in her case – and then the name took on a resonance it hadn’t had because it actually reflected something demonstrably true about her.

          1. All true – except that it was “Thatcher the Milk-Snatcher.”

    2. Oh, White Narcissist, you’re the Pro Libertate of the left.

      1. Libertarianism = Communism (with very slight differences.)

        Prisons are horrible, yet we all live in one.* Many to reform the prison of the agricultural city-State.

        Libertarianism (including all the variations, ancaps, agorist, etal) and Communists are two radical reform movements. Both try to create a “warden-less prison,” or as they say, a “stateless” civilization (agricultural city-State.)

        The minarchist libertarians are like the Stalinists, realizing that a stateless agricultural city-State (civilization) is a contradiction, a political oxymoron, and therefore are inclined to use aggression, government, against other humans (while whitewashing the aggression – I know you don’t call it that. It still is.)

        The salient difference between communism and libertarianism is how they want to use the space within the prison of city-Statism:

        ? Libertarians want to build prison bars between everybody, especially between the trustees and the general population. Their fetish is to privatize the prison cafeteria, basically so the trustees get more food. They call it “private property” and individualism.

        ? Communists want to tear out the prison privacy bars between everybody, including between wardens, trustees, and the general prison population, and force everybody into group dormitories. They call it community.

        Both think life outside the prison, without the prison industries producing prison trinkets, gamboling about plain and forest, would be the worst thing ever.

        * “The world of the Takers is one vast prison, and except for a handful of Leavers scattered across the world, the entire human race is now inside that prison.”

        “Naturally a prison must have a prison industry. It helps to keep the inmates busy. It takes their minds off the boredom and futility of their lives. Our prison industry? Consuming the world.”

        ~A Condensation of Daniel Quinn Thought
        Part 1: The Problem is Civilization

        1. Keep trolling that hard and you’re gonna hurt yourself!

          1. Keep from thinking that hard and you’re gonna be a typical city slicker.

            1. Keep from thinking that hard

              Something you’ve certainly never been guilty of doing.

        2. White Indian please wipe my stuff off your chin

          1. Not WI. Wipe your own chin, KOCHsucker.

            1. I still need to wipe the chocolate cake off my chin.

      2. What does that mean?

        1. It means that that the writer’s injuries from repeatedly drilling into her own head, to let the voices out, have finally come home to roost. There are rare moments of coherence, but only fleetingly so, and the the bursts of language that do come out resemble actual speech purely by accident.

          1. Oh, okay. Got me there.

  2. We need to nuke that family, they are a threat to America.

  3. With an intense concentration, Streep…

    …does what she always does: tells her audience that she is acting.

  4. Being back home in the UK for Christmas its awesome to see London buses covered in Mrs T posters advertising the film, I imagine they’re pissing off many a gaurdianista.

  5. Meryl may be headed for another Oscar nod for the Iron Lady but she’s never looked better than on the Zombie Walk of Fame as a featured diva at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot…

  6. Went with the wife to see the Girl with the Dragon Tatoo today. It’s a very well made thriller.

    1. Sailer’s review of that movie is interesting.

      But readers of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which has sold nearly 30 million books, know better. Larsson fearlessly exposed the true plagues menacing contemporary Sweden: rich Nazis, Christian male chauvinists, rapist legal officials, and two generations of billionaire serial killers?the first preying on Jewish women, the second on immigrant women.

      Fortunately, two human beings dare stand up to this fascist tsunami engulfing Sweden. One is a middle-aged leftist journalist (in other words, Larsson’s sockpuppet). Although persecuted (and possessing no discernible personality), he’s still dynamite with the ladies.

      The second is his young research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, who comes equipped with every add-on that turned on geeky former sci-fi fanzine editors such as Larsson in female fantasy figures back in the 1990s.

      Think Trinity in The Matrix, but with even more attitude. Lisbeth has genius computer-hacking skills, a black wardrobe and a black motorcycle, hand-to-hand combat techniques that let her deal out cruel vengeance upon men twice her 100 pounds, piercings, a mohawk, and lesbianism (until she’s exposed to the journalist hero’s recessive charm).

      But this isn’t the 1990s anymore, so the appeal of such dusty clich?s has drifted up the age range.…..z1hnodDydT

      1. Yeah good stuff.

        Despite Fincher’s expertise, his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo winds up being The Da Vinci Code of the 2010s, only with more anal rape.

        1. The Da Vinci Code of the 2010s, only with more anal rape.

          I KNEW thre was something missing from those movies, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Thanks a bunch!

        2. For all their pretense, nerds just can’t help from revealing how broken they are, and it certainly reflects in their individual fetishes.

  7. Thanks for the review of The Iron Lady. I’ve always had great respect and admiration for her, and had the pleasure of transcribing her Falkland’s War Commons speech for the USG (very powerful). But I’ve no interest in seeing her portrayed with contrived “syrupy speculation” and “leaky sentimentalism,” so you’ve saved me a trip to the RedBox.

  8. Tereza is a drama student from the Czech Republic who is looking for a bigger stage to perform on. Her first love was the theatre. That was where she made her first shy moves into the limelight.

    From there this fresh faced young girl has just begun to branch out into some modelling for carefully selected fine art studios. She is a natural for the camera with a perfectly proportioned body. Her pale, smooth skin contrasts stunningly with her sleek wavy hair. It tumbles down to her pert breasts as though it is embracing her. Her voluptuous looks have a suggestion of Italy, the country she is in love with.

    Tereza has an air of youthful innocence. But remember the old phrase, “Dimple on the chin, devil within.” Like the budding actress she is, Tereza is keeping us guessing what’s next. We are sure it will be a show stopper.

  9. A perhaps apropos line i read in a book today, a early-prototype thriller written by an apparent fan of marxism in the 1930s…’a coffin for dimitrios’ by Eric Ambler…

    regarding politicians =

    “In a dying civilization, political privilege is the reward not of the shrewdest diagnostician, but of the man with the best bedside manner. It is the decoration conferred on mediocrity by ignorance.”

    He might have meant it in the light of his despise for democracy in general… but I still find it a nice turn of phrase. It at the very least explains the majority of the preferred “leading” candidates in the current election cycle.

    oh, and fuck you White Indian.


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  11. He might have meant it in the light of his despise for democracy in general… but I still find it a nice turn of phrase. It at the very least explains the majority of the preferred “leading” candidates in the current election cycle.

  12. why do nonlibertarians hang around reason? why so many retarded posts?

  13. when the heck did kurt loder become a movie critic? i thought that fellating rockers was his gig.

  14. Why are all Western commentaries on Iranian culture and art always framed by the “I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but they actually DO make art, and some of them even think about things other than Mohammed!” disclaimer? I think your review of A Separation would have benefited from a little research into normal urban Iranian society, given that that is the setting of the film.

    1. Well said

      It betrays a lack of perspective an an utterly ignorant mind set when reviewers are shocked that their stereotypes are proven to have been completely false.

  15. FOlks, just wanted to say that I liked this movie a lot. It brings out character.

  16. Margaret Thatcher ,called The Iron Lady ,was the Britain’s first female prime minister (from 1979 to 1990) and was well-know in the world . recently ,Meryl Streep will play Margaret Thatcher in the movie The Iron Lady . yoi just can expect it.

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