"Few people were neutral in their feelings about" Margaret Thatcher "except the makers of" "The Iron Lady," wrote the late Roger Ebert in his review of the 2011 biopic starring Meryl Streep as the love-her-or-hate-her British leader.
While praising Miss Streep for her "uncanny impersonation," the influential film critic, who died last week at age 70, complained that the film's director and writer "seem to have little clear idea of what they think about Thatcher, or what they want to say."
Translation? The filmmakers' view of Mrs. Thatcher differed from Mr. Ebert's own.
One might think from reading Mr. Ebert's review that the salient foreign policy event of Mrs. Thatcher's long tenure as Prime Minister — which coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet empire, mutual reductions in nuclear arsenals, and the end of the Cold War — was the brief, relatively early, Falklands episode. To the longtime film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, her military reply to the Argentine invasion of the disputed islands was a pointless and anachronistic exercise in British imperialism (even if, as he acknowledged, Argentina did precipitate the hostilities).
By many accounts, "The Iron Lady" credits Mrs. Thatcher for her achievements as a kind of objective feminist who overcame long odds through force of will and personality in rising to the top of a male-dominated political arena.
That wasn't enough for Mr. Ebert. "Was she a monster? A heroine?" he demanded. "The movie has no opinion."
Guess which one she was in the critic's opinion.
In Mr. Ebert's view, the hidden motive force underlying domestic and economic Thatcherism — the epochal reinvigoration of market economics and reversal of the statist tide in England — was quite clear: It was, simply, the stony heartlessness of Mrs. Thatcher herself.
"In a striking scene that takes place in her increasingly senile old age, she declares that ideas are more important to her than feelings," he wrote. "That seems to have been a governing principle in her life, allowing her to look with apparently limited concern at unemployment, hunger and homelessness."
As a rule, film critics consider shaded, nuanced interpretations of complex characters onscreen to be an indispensable criterion of artistic success.
Except, it seems, in the depiction of conservative icons. In that case, political commitment trumps psychological depth — and art demands that three dimensional, fully human characters be sacrificed in favor of one-dimensional monsters.
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