The Iron Lady (12A)

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
On general release from January 6th 2012

Reviewed by Adam Ford

I was nine in November 1990, when Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation. My mum was so delighted she came to the school gates to tell me the news. I let a few others know and within minutes there were hundreds of us leaping about and dancing, singing "Ding-dong! The Witch is Dead!" from The Wizard of Oz. So I suppose it's reasonably accurate to say she wasn't universally liked in my town.

There are lots of reasons why it is quite likely that she wasn't in yours either, and why your local cinema might not be full to bursting with Maggie fans despite the huge publicity campaign.

As Seumas Milne reminded us this week:

"This is a politician, after all, who never won the votes of more than a third of the electorate; destroyed communities; created mass unemployment; deindustrialised Britain; redistributed from poor to rich; and, by her deregulation of the City, laid the basis for the crisis that has engulfed us 25 years later. Thatcher was a prime minister who denounced Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, defended the Chilean fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet, ratcheted up the cold war, and unleashed militarised police on trade unionists and black communities alike. She was Britain's first woman prime minister, but her policies hit women hardest, like Cameron's today."

With that in mind, it's easy to see why this "not a political film" "told from her point of view" is so wide of the mark. Thatcher was an intensely political figure, whose rise and fall was the result of complex social forces. But director Phyllida Lloyd retreats to an 'individual' view of Thatcher, in a sad philosophical echo of the latter's famous quote that "there is no such thing as society". Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Thatcher would have told the story differently, and that points to anything but impartiality.

But for much of the film, the fictionalised modern day Thatcher character (Meryl Streep) doesn't even rise to the level of individual in any real sense. Instead she is merely a lonely, senile old woman who struggles with memories - especially of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) - and wishes her kids would visit more. Tellingly, it is these scenes which are the most powerful, because most of us know or have known an elderly widow like that, and on some level most of us probably fear ending up more or less alone like that in our last days.

Modern day Thatcher's shaky recollections of her political career form the basis of the remainder. But recollections is all they are. Thatcher shows no real signs of pleasure or sadness at the memories - except when they are to do with her family. So there is no sense of criticism at all. Whether it is her constituency selection meeting, taking on Labour leader Michael Foot across the dispatch box, or intimidating Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe into acquiescence, Thatcher is portrayed as winning out over male opponents because of her passion for the ultra right neoliberal cause, and remarkable self-belief.

But as David Broder observed in his review:

"It constantly venerates her sense of purpose and determination, her sureness in her principles. In a conversation with her doctor, when he asks how she feels, she complains that people always talk about their inner feelings, not about what they think, or what action is necessary. In contrast to such behaviour, she wears her politics on her sleeve. So the film makes a strange kind of tribute to Thatcher: how can you champion someone’s sureness that their principles are right and indeed necessary, regardless of any judgement on whether they are indeed correct? If a politician takes their beliefs seriously, surely they would want others to take them seriously too, rather than merely celebrate the fact that these beliefs exist?"

How can you? can't! If - like many of today's super-rich - you admire Thatcher's policies, you will delight in her 'gumption', or whatever old-fashioned word you choose for her characteristics. If - like many others from different social layers - you despise her politics, you'll find yourself despairing as your hopes and aspirations are trampled under her heels. Worse still, you are simply not given an eloquent voice in the film. The Tory 'wets' were still Tories - if more cautious ones, Foot is shown as a hopeless dreamer, and working class dissent is limited to people throwing things in the Toxteth or Trafalgar Square riots, as miners get battered to the ground by those militarised police.

While class politics is almost entirely absent - except in terms of Thatcher's own rise from less than aristocratic origins - Lloyd's liberal feminism is pushed to the forefront. The director claims she was extremely pleased when Thatcher became the first female PM "through the door" of Number 10, and there is no reason to doubt this. For her, Thatcher's gender alone makes her worthy of praise, no matter how badly her policies affected the vast majority of women, and of course men and children too. In the end, her "global stardom" ended "in true tragic style", and Thatcher was brought down by her own sense of invincibility and nothing more.

Meryl Streep - perhaps the finest actress of her generation - utterly inhabits the skin of Thatcher, to such an extent that I often felt like I was watching a documentary. But if it was a documentary, it would otherwise be an extraordinarily bad one. With Thatcher's heirs continuing to wage bitter war on almost everyone but the elites she herself courted and so greatly aided, this is an utterly establishment-friendly, glossy portrait of a woman hated around the world. Anything else would have been rocking the boat at a time when working class anger is rising to even greater heights. No doubt The Iron Lady will be given pride of place in TV schedules on the day of her state funeral.

Until then, "I just can't feel sorry for her...I just can't", as my girlfriend commented as we left the theatre. After all, many widowed women Thatcher's age are shivering to death at this very moment because of her political legacy. We can be sure that 'the iron lady' will live in the greatest comfort until the moment she is melted down for scrap.

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Sorry Comments Closed

Comment left by Jo Ridley on 15th January, 2012 at 12:03
Thanks for this review Adam. It has helped me to make sense of my conflicted and confused thoughts and feelings about The Iron Lady. I found myself swept up in the emotion of the film, (Thatcher would disapprove!), and came away feeling perplexed. The pathos of a grieving old woman with failing capacities, the brilliance of Streep & Broadbent’s acting.... But I guess that’s why this film can be seen as potentially dangerous, and entirely unbalanced in how this personal element covers up the realities of Thatcher’s reign. I also came to the film from a position of concern about the level of hatred directed in general towards Thatcher. As a feminist I question the element of misogyny contained within this collective hatred, though am aware there are myriad legitimate reasons for people to be angry with her and her government. This concern perhaps left me more open to being manipulated by the Director into feeling a certain level of empathy for Thatcher. Arghh! I think you are absolutely right Adam when you say that the film is ‘establishment friendly’, and that it in no way gives proper voice to those of us who despise her politics and are still impacted by the legacy of her government’s decade of tyranny. It is also almost certainly not, as you say, an impartial film – it tells Thatcher’s story as she would probably choose for it to be told.

Comment left by Sandra Gibson on 16th January, 2012 at 16:47
An eloquent piece of writing raising a number of crucial points. Thank you for this - it balances and warns. I remember well the crushing of the miners and the cynical jingoism of the Faulklands War. Like all megalomaniacs Thatcher was utterly convinced of her rectitude and her truth-by-assertion widely accepted.

Comment left by Adam Ford on 17th January, 2012 at 23:19
Thankyou for your comments. Jo, I fully agree that this 'personal' element is being used to almost emotionally blackmail people into at least sympathising with her and her political agenda - which it makes no attempt whatsoever to test. I say 'personal', because all the most effective, pathos-soaked elements are entirely fictional, and are only particular to Thatcher in the sense that she had a husband called Dennis and children called Carol and Mark. Some criticism of Thatcher undoubtedly is mysogynist - particularly when she is said to have 'handbagged' her opponents and such like. But the director tries to mislead feminists and feminist allies into supporting her very 'individual' rise to power. Recall the scene where she joins the House of Commons, and the shot pulls to above her blue hat and outfit, against a sea of grey-suited men. Not a single other female MP is shown, and this must be deliberate. Even then, there were twenty-four other females in the House of Commons. It seems a very strange sort of feminism, if it actually underplays the strength of female power.

Comment left by Tall Paul on 18th January, 2012 at 11:41
Thatcher did feminism a tremendous favour: She made it OK to hate a woman politician just the same as to hate the men. If the hatred of Thatcher seems sometimes to border on mysogeny it is precisely because she did this job so well. Make no mistake: anyone who feels a pang of sorrow for her is a sexist bastard! Any care she receives in the final days of her senility should come only from individuals and not from society.

Comment left by Carol on 19th January, 2012 at 21:14
I have to say I quite liked this film. But I went to see it just as a film, not as a political commentary because I'd already worked out from reading the reviews that there was no political commentary. I wouldn't say it's deliberately pro-establishment either, but rather that Thatcher's politics and career are glossed over, all you get is snippets of it with no context or background. It can't be the last word on her in film, someone needs to produce another one which explores her politics and policies in full. What I kept thinking as I was watching the film was how insanely power-hungry she must have been. In another context, in a country with no checks on political power, she would have become a dictator to beat them all.