The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
February 17, 2012

A clever device - Brendan Simms argues that the pill of dementia allows the audience to swallow a much larger draught of Thatcherite ideology: The Iron Lady - Phyllida Lloyd

Posted by Brendan Simms

The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
certificate 12A, 2011

It is not hard to see why The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher should have divided critics and audiences so much. Any film about the former Prime Minister, who bestrode the country like a colossus for an entire decade, was bound to do so.

The Iron Lady reminds us of just how divided Britain was in the 1980s. Since then we have had the Iraq war, the fuel crisis, and the economic crisis, but none of these episodes compares with the passions stirred by the miners' strike and the poll tax, to name but the two most contentious subjects. Indeed, there have been reports of demonstrations outside cinemas in northern England as sexagenarian union stalwarts register their protest against the hated Maggie. To them and to left-liberal critics generally, the film not only humanises its subject, but gives her politics a sympathetic hearing.

Above all, the film portrays Thatcher as a conviction politician, a proto-feminist strong woman in a world of largely weak men. It declines to take aim at various open goals, in particular Thatcher's steadfast refusal to do anything legislatively for women's rights, but then why should she have as she herself managed perfectly well without them. One by one, Thatcher sees off her opponents: the miners, the fascist Argentine junta, and the IRA who tried to kill her in the Brighton bombing only to over-reach herself with the Poll Tax, precipitating massive popular protests and a cabinet revolt which ultimately brought her down.

Many Conservatives, by contrast, have been outraged by the portrayal of Lady Thatcher's well-documented dementia. Insofar as this reflects unease with the fact that its subject is still alive, with all the implications for her privacy and dignity, this is entirely reasonable. All the same, it is a pity that the Conservative keepers of the flame cannot see that the pill of dementia allows the audience to swallow a much larger draught of Thatcherite ideology.

The Iron Lady is brilliantly made and acted. Much has been made, and rightly, of Meryl Streep's performance. It is so superb that you often think you are watching an old news programme. The handling of the rampant sexism in the House of Commons and the country as a whole - right and left is subtle. Rather than ramming feminism down the viewer's throat, or relying solely on crassly chauvinistic dialogue, the camera shows the serried ranks of headless suits and waistcoats suddenly offset by the shocking blue of Thatcher's dress, and a ground-level shot picks out a lone pair of high heels among the brigade of brogues charging down the corridors of power at Westminster.

The work of the public relations consultants to improve her voice and image generally - the speech exercises surely owe something to the King's Speech - seems at first to take us to the classic world of manipulation and artifice: Ides of March and State of Play territory. However, the film stresses that Thatcher was essentially being told to be true to herself, by stripping away some of the affectations she had acquired over time. Moreover, Thatcher sometimes over-rules the image consultants - keeping her pearls - just as she later runs rings around the unfortunate doctor tasked with assessing her dementia.

The plot takes some liberties with historical fact, but usually not more than dramatic licence requires. It doesn't matter at all that Thatcher was not actually in the car park when her confidante, the shadow Northern Ireland spokesman Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), was blown up by the Irish National Liberation Army; indeed it underlines their political closeness. The brutal cabinet conversation with Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) didn't happen, or at least not that way, but the underlying theme of a deteriorating relationship is effectively conveyed; and though I very much doubt that the room set aside for women in the Palace of Westminster actually contained an ironing board, who cares?

One might quibble, though, with the reversed order of the Falklands War and the Miners strike, because it was surely the increased standing victory in the former gave Thatcher that enabled her to prevail in the later battle.

More serious are the gaps. The genre inevitably brings compression and flattening with it, to be sure, but the process by which Thatcher rose to the top is covered in a gallop, where a canter would have been possible. Blink and she has moved from freshman MP to the head of the party (her bte noire, party leader and Prime Minister Ted Heath is further humiliated by barely featuring), blink again and she has been elected Prime Minister.

Moreover, the Falklands aside, foreign policy is reduced to a dance with Ronald Reagan and a brief newsreel of Mikhail Gorbachev; there is nothing about her momentous insight that the Soviet leader (to be, as he was then) might be "a man we can do business with". Above all, there is nothing at all about German Unification and Europe, the issue which did as much as the poll tax to undermine her position among the Conservative leadership.

Of course, this is to criticise the film what it is not: a classic biopic. The Iron Lady is really a love story, with Thatcher's dementia as a plot device which allows Streep to engage in her much-loved late husband Denis (an impish Jim Broadbent) in imagined conversations on family and politics. The conceit works artistically, but the content price is high because it forces out the key issues mentioned above; it would be like a film about Churchill which went to town on his Black Dog depressions but ignored Gallipoli. Denis tells Margaret as she looks at some unnecessary shots of their children growing up

You can rewind history, but you cannot change it.
True enough, but one suspects that when The Iron Lady comes out in DVD, viewers will reach for fast forward when they reach these scenes.

The author thanks Jonathan Bronitzky, Eddie Fishman, Roderick Munday and James Carleton Paget for conversations on this subject.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

I love you Meryl Streep. I want you to have another Oscar But sorry – you look riludicous in this trailer and movie. It’s a bad year for biopics. DiCaprio looked riludicous as Edgar Hoover and Maryl Streep looks laughable as Margaret Thatcher. And you know what killed those performances? Those STUPID ACCENTS. Someone needs to tell people in Hollywood that american actors look riludicous when they begin speak with fake accents. It’s like – look we know how you speak in real life. And when you try those fake accents then it’s just not believable. We want to see your character but instead we sit and laugh every time you open your mouth. It’s the same problem I have with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trailer. Rooney Mara looks all tough and like some supercool badass girl And then she opens her mouth and speaks with some riludicous accent and looks very stupid. Like some cheerleader schoolgirl. I can’t taker her character serious.

Posted by: Olya at June 4, 2012 11:44 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement