The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent
Reviewed by Jenny Haines
The curse of our lives is that as we get older all we are left with, as children leave home and the next generation moves in to our workplaces, is our memories. The Iron Lady, a movie written by Abi Morgan, portrays an aged Margaret Thatcher living with her memories in the confusion of old age, not sure any more what is real and what is not.
Dennis Thatcher died of cancer many years before the time in which Thatcher is portrayed, but he appears in this movie, talking to Margaret, as she sees and feels him as real.
She faces the crisis of finally having to clear his clothes from her wardrobes, but the crisis is also about having to clear her conscience, and her soul, of the balance of what is left in her memory about her years in politics, in particular her years as prime minister of Great Britain.
This movie portrays Thatcher as having a conscience about these years, but you never got the sense when she was in power that she had any concerns about those that she was hurting.
Thatcher famously declared “there is no such thing as society” and went on to attack the society that she lived in with a vengeance, cutting social services, creating unemployment and trying to destroy the union movement.
Thatcher’s greatest inspiration seems to have been her father, a grocer with an avid interest in politics who inspired his daughter’s extreme free-market thinking.
When it came time for her to enter politics, the film invites some sympathy for her, a grocer’s daughter up against the Tory boys from British Public Schools and Oxbridge.
But Thatcher herself won a place at Oxford, which gave her a start in the Conservative Party. She became noticed because of her firmly stated, but often simplistic, views on what needed to be done to invigorate Britain after the privations of World War II and its aftermath.
Margaret Thatcher paid the price that every woman who enters politics pays: the loss of time with her children, but they did not seem, in the movie at least to hold her ambition against her, as so often can happen in politicians’ families.
Thatcher may not have believed there was any such thing as society, but her society was riven with divisions, hates, violence, tumult and turmoil, much of it the result of initiatives of her and her government.
Unions and unionists fighting for survival, anti-poll-tax demonstrators, even the IRA bombings of the time could be squarely placed back in her court, as she made very little effort to reach out to the IRA as Tony Blair and Mo Bowlam did in later years.
She and Dennis are depicted as bewildered by the bombing of the Brighton Hotel during the Conservative Party conference. All I could think about was starving children in Ireland during the potato famine.
The film and its writers and producers are very kind to Thatcher over the Falklands War, which she created to win an election.
One rather humorous portrayal during this part of the movie is the US ambassador, played by an actor who also plays the classic American operative in Spooks. The Americans are portrayed as not favouring of the Falklands War, and make it clear that they think it a mad adventure, which of course it was.
But Thatcher served tea and declared that there would be a war, and that was it. She is shown ordering the destruction of the Belgrano, which led to counter-measures by the Argentinian government, and many British and Argentinian deaths.
The public face of Thatcher at the time was that of the cold, calculating prime minister of Imperial Britain. In the movie she is shown weeping over letters to the families of dead British soldiers. It’s hard to believe that ever happened.
Meryl Streep does a masterful job portraying Thatcher, her cold steely demeanour with faux upper class accent. Jim Broadbent ably supports her as Dennis Thatcher.
The movie has been nominated for a Golden Globe. It is well worth seeing, but I felt no sympathy for Thatcher. She created her world and then she had to live in it.