The emphasis throughout The Iron Lady is on the older Thatcher as she may be today, struggling behind closed doors to retain her clarity of mind and talking to a husband who died eight years before. It is possible that director Phyllida Lloyd believes that the only way to get an audience is to make Thatcher a sympathetic character and to do that she needs to focus on speculative frailty and weaknesses, as if that somehow excuses those eleven long years. It doesn’t work. The film reminds us throughout that Thatcher constantly kept her husband and children at bay and was as unable to relate to them as she was to her colleagues in the Cabinet and to the ordinary man and woman on the street. She might have known the price of Lurpak in the shops but she never grasped the human cost of her unilateral decisions or why such a slice of the population rallied and held her personally responsible for the Poll Tax.
Through a series of flashbacks, we see snippets of Thatcher’s progression to power and little glimpses of her life with businessman Denis (Jim Broadbent) and her young twins Carol and Mark. While the former is a personal success story, the latter is not. One scene shows her small children running after her car, in a last attempt to claim some attention. She sweeps their toys from the passenger seat into the glovebox. There are moments of wit in the script, largely at the expense of Thatcher’s colleagues, but these are let down by the drudgery and the monotony of the tedious scenes with the phantom, bumbling Denis. The consequences of Thatcher’s political career and the major events of the day are shown in news film clips from the time – riots, strikes, IRA atrocities, the Falklands. This makes it much easier for Lloyd to brush over the politics while the scenes with Denis makes The Iron Lady dull.
Throughout the film, Thatcher reminds us that she has had to fight every single day of her life and, indeed, one can’t underestimate the misogyny and bullying that she endured. However, once she was in power she surrounded herself with a notoriously weak Cabinet that she herself bullied until it finally snapped. It’s interesting trying to recognise Howe, Hurd, Heseltine and others (I failed to spot Thatcher’s rottweiler Tebbit) but you’d be hardpressed to find anyone remotely likeable in this film. Those honours are reserved for Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), who is here shown trying to mould Thatcher, but is better known to history for escaping from Colditz and for his murder at the hands of the IRA in the House of Commons car park.
Is Margaret Thatcher a good subject for a movie? It seems to me that one’s opinion will inevitably be tied to one’s political biases, at least in the UK, but The Iron Lady fails because it tries to sail a middle course – reminding us of the bad while trying to compensate for them with the weak. However, the film clips speak for themselves. The moment when Thatcher agrees to sink the Belgrano – even though it was sailing away from the Falkland Islands – and we see a missile strike, I actually felt ill. Likewise, the images of the Poll Tax riot with horses riding over protesters.
And yet the fundamental reason why these clips spoke more to me than any clever exchanges between Thatcher and her cronies is because I remember them happening. I marched in the Poll Tax protest, my grandfather was one of the leaders of the miners, I remember rubbish on the streets, teachers, firemen, ambulance crews all striking, the inflation and the millions jobless. I recall the leaflets through the door telling us how to construct a makeshift nuclear bomb shelter and I had sleepless nights thanks to reading about the crews burning on sinking ships in the Falklands. I was politicised by Margaret Thatcher. That is a big problem with The Iron Lady – you either remember the events and have strong personal feelings for or against Thatcher or you don’t and you won’t learn much about them here.
In one scene a woman goes down on her knees before an infirm Thatcher after a dinner party to tell her what an inspiration she was to women – if I’d have been drinking at the time I would have spat it out.
Movies are mighty beasts – they have the power to sway opinion, fiddle with history or even to rewrite it. Watching The Iron Lady, this worried me. I worried about audiences too young to remember Margaret Thatcher, or audiences abroad that may only recall the images of Thatcher posing with Reagan, Gorbachev and other world leaders. I also couldn’t help wondering what Thatcher herself would think of it. I doubt she’d like it any more than me.
What you will see is another fine performance by Meryl Streep. But, whether you’re red or you’re blue, that doesn’t make The Iron Lady a good film.