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Why Lisbeth Salander Beats Margaret Thatcher

In The Iron Lady, a figure named Margaret Thatcher orders the sinking of the Argentinean battleship, the Belgrano. She “wins” the war of the Falkland Islands, just as she had won leadership of the Conservative party in Great Britain and had become the nation’s first female prime minister. As such, she imposed austerity cuts; she beat down the trade union movement; she gutted many parts of her country, especially the manufacturing north; and she restored a version of prosperity in the financial services industry that was lifted on the wave of the Internet. She was the most significant leader Britain had had since Churchill. But she was more drastic than the wartime premier. He responded to an external threat when he had no other choice. Mrs. Thatcher was an innovator determined on radical surgery. Churchill was resolute, and she was an ideologue—which is most useful or more dangerous?

Meryl Streep plays Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and she is the greatest actress we have. She is as brilliant as you would have expected, yet she is so defeated by the film’s task that we are impeded in our sense of Thatcher herself. Elsewhere, there are single shots of another superwoman, Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that go to the heart of cinema. One dead-eyed glance, one alienated shrug, one moment of her hurtling on her motor bike, and we are riveted, while Streep’s extraordinary, humane skill seems adrift and even fussy. How can this be?

It’s not that I specially admire David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When a mystery film takes 158 minutes, it has more than whodunit on its mind; it has pretension and obsession—coming after Se7en and Zodiac, this is Fincher’s third film about a serial killer. Having not read the Stieg Larsson books, or seen the Swedish films of 2009, I came to this English-language remake with fresh eyes, and was shocked to discover how old-fashioned the story is. The situation of the disgraced investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig), given a second chance by being hired to investigate the forty-year-old murder of a teenage girl, Harriet, from a wealthy and dysfunctional family, feels as quaint as Sherlock Holmes.     

So Blomkvist is set down on a bleak, wintry island on which several members of the family live without ever talking to one another. The hiring patriarch in the case (Christopher Plummer) gives him box-loads of research and assures Blomkvist that he’ll soon work out the family tree. I never did—yet I knew who the killer was early on, just because of the casting.

That whole intrigue (the “Harriet” mystery) is a set-up for Lisbeth Salander. She is a punk, bisexual waif, a ward of the state, a hostile wolf, and a computer genius. When she is hideously raped by her state guardian, she takes a cruel revenge on him that seems satisfying because revenge is intrinsic to the rhythm and justice of movie. But despite her victimization, she is as much a superwoman as Lauren Bacall in her first film, To Have and Have Not (1944). That’s the one where she seems alone, immaculate, hardboiled and ready to teach Bogart how to whistle, until she turns out to be so pliant a love-child Bogart ended up marrying her.

Lisbeth Salander admits that she can’t get on with people, and nothing in Fincher’s vision encourages any such hope. She regards others as if they were the walls in corridors; she suffers horribly and responds like a psychopathic wizard; she has piercings on her face and an indigo-black tattoo draped over her sinuous body. We know this, because eventually, after she has agreed to help Blomkvist in his investigation of Harriet with her infinite hacking talent (all taken on trust in the film), she strips off one night and stands before him, silent and naked. “Is this sensible?” he asks, like a weary James Bond. But she is on him, saving him the effort of having to woo or ask her. She is in charge, and a flawless male fantasy despite the film’s gestures towards feminism. I have no idea whether Mara could play anyone else—Bacall couldn’t really after her first two Howard Hawks films—but it doesn’t matter. She holds this crazy, prolonged film together, so Daniel Craig stands aside and lets her baleful ghost own the camera.

Everyone on The Iron Lady, starting with director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan, assumes that Streep will own the film and conduct it to grace or glory. But there is no movie at home, because describing a real political leader is so much harder on screen than making an assertion of insolent glamour. The Iron Lady has three Thatchers: the young woman who got married and started a political career (Alexandra Roach); the leader; and the older widow who hallucinates that her husband is still alive and who is gradually losing her mind. (The real Baroness Thatcher is eighty-six and still alive. I never liked her, but I hope she is beyond seeing or understanding this inept movie.)

As you might expect, Streep is magnificent but speciously sympathetic in the Alzheimer-like coda to the real drama, even if her husband Denis (played by Jim Broadbent) proves such a bore you can’t understand why so decisive a woman stayed with him. One answer is hinted at: that she had to be married to a businessman to win a seat in Parliament. Another is easily imagined: like many people fixed on power she had no interest in love or sex, except where it might assist her.

Thatcher in lonely dementia has nothing to do with the mounting isolation of her leadership, but it softens the project. I do not intend to suggest that Thatcher used actual sex to gain power, but winning the leadership of her party was her most startling achievement. She appropriated a men’s club, and that took charm, warmth and ways of impressing men. But Streep is as chilled in this film as she is inventive, and she does not convey how Thatcher affected her male associates. There is no reason for making this story if you can’t get inside Thatcher’s head and feel her instinct for manipulation. Streep is endlessly creative and actressy; but there is no nature in her Thatcher, and no secret to draw us in.

Against that, the authority of Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander is beguiling just because of how little she gives away about herself. The glamour in reticence is endlessly winning, and the point of putting these two superwomen together is to stress how the sensationalism of a black leather now and a blank stare from a haunting face can surpass ideas, history, politics and all the things the world once hoped to work with. The Iron Lady believes in depth, while movies depend on the panache of superficiality.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.