The Iron Lady: biopic ignores dark and unsavoury aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s life and career

Phyllida Lloyd, “The Iron Lady” (2011)

I steeled myself to watch this film; I had seen the trailer and it had filled me with fear. Donning a Kevlar vest and protective wrap-round glasses to deflect excessive radiation, I entered the cinema with grim anticipation of camp heart-of-darkness horror. As it turned out though, “The Iron Lady” is more sugar-sweet seduction than full-steam-ahead torpedo fire and that soft approach may be more insidious for the target audience. The use of Baroness Thatcher’s dementia to explore the woman’s history in flashback sequences is a useful distancing device that at once humanises her but removes and dehumanises the victims of her policies, and this becomes both the film’s saving grace (aside from its lead actor) as a character study and its weakness as a historical document.

The film simply wouldn’t have worked without Meryl Streep in the lead role: Streep all but submerges herself in the character of Thatcher. I have seen only one other film in which Streep played a real-life woman to perfection and that was Lindy Chamberlain* in “Evil Angels”; Streep was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for that role. Her portrayal of MT looks eerily accurate: she embodies MT’s vulnerabilities as wife, mother, politician, Prime Minister and dementia victim as well as the woman’s more familiar public face as formidable and steely. One highlight scene comes near the end in which MT in the twilight years of her reign holds a meeting with her Cabinet and one man confesses he hadn’t given her an important timetable and the paper he has handed to her is a first draft; Thatcher rips him apart over his spelling and tardiness and the other ministers around him wilt from the full force of the burning light streaming from her being. At once viewers see MT as she must have appeared to her minions – exacting and tough as nails – and also cracks in the carapace: the expression on her face after her ministers depart softens and shows exhaustion and her fingers and hands tremble, as though to suggest that whipping the errant minister took more out of her than of him.

Apart from Streep’s astonishing acting, the film itself has little plot and must rely on Thatcher’s career from the 1950s to her downfall in 1990 for narrative direction. Jim Broadbent and Olivia Colman as Thatcher’s husband Dennis and daughter Carol are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes: Dennis shows nothing of the forceful millionaire businessman who supported MT financially and smoothed her path to No 1 top dog, and Carol is reduced to a caregiver role. (In real life, Carol is a journalist / writer / media celebrity who started her career working for The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia.) Son Mark Thatcher barely figures in the film and that along with other moments indicates an extreme unwillingness on the script’s part to confront some of the less savoury aspects of MT’s general career and ideological persuasion: far from refusing to work with fascist thugs as suggested in the film’s Falklands War episode, the British worked with fascist-ruled Chile (Argentina’s supposed enemy)** during that war; and MT’s son was later investigated by South African authorities in the late 1990s for loan sharking and was also accused of racketeering in Texas about the same time. (And of course there was that little Equatorial Guinea coup d’état attempt escapade in 2004 for which Mark Thatcher was fined 3 million rand and received a suspended jail term.) Other characters in the film simply flit by and register very little on viewers’ radar.

Even as a sympathetic and small-scale character study, the film has obvious flaws and omissions: what happened in the young Margaret Roberts’s life as grocer’s daughter that made her decide to enter politics at a time when women were expected to be wives and stay-at-home mothers? What happened later on to prompt her to challenge for the Conservative Party leadership in the mid-1970s? (It cannot just have been a desire to upset people.) Why did she decide to change her image from a dowdy housewife politician with a shrill voice to a hard-headed plutonium blonde bombshell with the deep throaty tones? Where and how did she acquire and adopt the economic philosophy, championed by economists Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek, of less government intervention and greater privatisation of the economy that was to transform Britain so much during her tenure as Prime Minister and beyond? The film’s narrow focus on Thatcher as a child of the working classes fighting entrenched social and economic class-based attitudes and becoming a role model to all women diverts viewers’ attention away from asking these and other uncomfortable questions about how politicians use public relations and spin-doctoring to further their careers and impose particular ideologies and polices on a restive populace. Posing MT as a role model for girls and women in fighting gender inequality also overlooks the fact that MT is consistently shown to be a woman with a somewhat masculine style of thinking and behaving that likely would alienate and drive away any potential female friends and allies.

Remove Streep and what is left? Hardly anything that would qualify as a film: the ending in which the ghost Dennis finally disappears from Thatcher’s life is comic and leaves the film hanging as it were from an invisibly crumbling cliff. This in itself says something that subtly and ironically undercuts the film’s message: for all her being championed as a role model and leader for women in politics, Margaret Thatcher ultimately depended on a man of wealth and elevated social position to rise to the top.

*Lindy Chamberlain was the woman whose baby was taken by a dingo at Uluru in central Australia in 1980; Chamberlain was later charged with murder, found guilty and jailed for life in 1982. In 1986 after new evidence was found suggesting the dingo story was more credible, and the forensic evidence presented in 1982 found to be suspect, Chamberlain was released from jail and her conviction was overturned in 1988. A 1995 inquest into the baby’s disappearance returned an open verdict. The case has been re-opened and a new inquest is due to begin in early 2012.

**Six countries including Argentina and Chile collaborated under Operation Condor to capture people targeted as “subversives” or “internal enemies”: the collaboration included sharing information on torture and execution methods as well as seizing, torturing and killing people in one another’s jurisdiction. (Source: Third World Traveller, http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/CIA/Predatory_States_Condor.html)

 

 

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