The Divisive Iron Lady

Film

I left the theatre feeling somewhat disappointed. After seeing Phyllida Lloyd’s new film, The Iron Lady (2011), I hadn’t really learned much about our protagonist, Margaret Thatcher. I had wondered how Lloyd would fit the long, significant life of the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom into a mere 105 minutes. Armed with Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent as her leads, I was sure that the result would be spectacular. Yet before watching the film, I had only a handful of Thatcher facts in my back pocket. One thing was certain—I disagreed with her thoroughly on her infamous anti-socialist policies that her and crony Ronald Reagan had gotten up to in the 1980s. Yet, this obvious point was trumped by the fact that she had, after all, been the first female prime minister of the UK, a feat that my own country of the United States has yet to achieve. I had heard that she was tough and, of course, this endeared me enough to her story to see the film. Yet as the credits rolled, I found myself wondering how such impeccable talent and such a rich story had been wasted by a screenplay that loitered much too much in the present.

We are first introduced to Margaret (Meryl Streep) in present day England, in her 80s and suffering from dementia. She still talks to her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), although he has been dead since 2003. Her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman), must continually remind her that he is dead. In a BBC article from 2008, the real Carol Thatcher admits to how painful it is to see this once iron lady, this woman with a “memory of a website,” struggling to remember basic facts. She states, “She was in her 75th year but I had always thoughts of her as ageless, timeless and 100% cast-iron damage-proof.” And yet while it was artistically interesting to begin the story of Margaret Thatcher during her later years, flashing back to key moments in the past and yet keeping the story grounded in the present, it seemed a waste to devote so much time to Thatcher’s life with dementia. There is so much to tell about her life, and yet so many details of it were glossed over, instead offering more of the same extraneous scenes of Margaret Thatcher chatting with her dead husband.

Yet I did learn some interesting things about Thatcher and her illustrious career. She was the daughter of a very political grocer-cum-mayor in Grantham, England, and the apparent influence for her later anti-socialist, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps brand of politics. She always wore blue in support of her Tory party colors. She has a daughter named Carol and a son named Mark who lives in South Africa. And yet, how did she first make it to office as a member of parliament (MP)? The film seems to claim that it was her husband’s money and power as an already established businessman who added the extra appeal. She was an intelligent, feisty candidate who had lost in the 1951 general elections—not only was she young and female, but she was also from a working class background. According to the film, a union with Denis Thatcher would remedy this. Yet before young Margaret accepted his offer, she explained her position clearly—she wasn’t going to be a pretty housewife. “No, one’s life must matter, Denis. Beyond the cooking and the cleaning and the children, one’s life must mean more than that—I cannot die washing up a tea cup.” And yet the final scene of the film is Margaret Thatcher, alone, suffering from dementia, and washing her own tea cup. What sort of statement is the film trying to make? Has her worst nightmare really come true? Did her life really not matter? Although I do thoroughly disagree with Margaret Thatcher’s policies, I can’t agree that she hasn’t led a full life and career. Moreover, from a feminist perspective, how can one assert that the first female prime minister of the UK has achieved her worst fear of her life not mattering?

Other questions left unanswered were exactly how she ended up as prime minister, and why she had been so controversial. We see her measured public transformation, the voice coach lessons and the fashion advice, but who did she make friends with along the way? Where were the dramatic campaigns? When she did get to office, what were her major challenges? I was expecting more detail beyond some images of protests and a few minutes dedicated to the Falklands War between the UK and Argentina. The story quickly takes us through her youth, to her time in office, and then jumps to her fall from power. Ten years of office glazed over. Perhaps screenwriter Abi Morgan had relied on the British public’s already vast comprehension of the iron lady, of her work, of her infamous conservatism, and of her relationship and rapport with the public. Yet, for the wider audience across the pond and throughout Europe, where it is also currently screening, Morgan missed an opportunity to tell a riveting, and yet fresh, story to an eager audience. Moreover, from a more detailed portrayal of Margaret Thatcher’s actions while prime minister, the audience would have been able to form their own opinions about her politics.

I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way. According to the BBC, the Iron Lady is as divisive today as she was while in office. Yet all of the “divisiveness” seems to come down to one point: people don’t think she was accurately portrayed. While some think the film should have been harsher on her policies, others who were close to her would have liked to see her heralded for her contributions to British political discourse. Yet another divide posits the over-emotional portrayal of Thatcher against the perception that she wasn’t shown hard enough. For example, Norman Tebbit, who served in the Thatcher government from 1979 to 1987, discusses the former in an article in The Daily Telegraph. He writes: “She could be hard, perhaps at times unfairly so, on colleagues who failed her standards. However, she was never, in my experience, the half-hysterical, over-emotional, over-acting woman portrayed by Meryl Streep.” That said, Meryl Streep did do an excellent job carrying us through our higgledy-piggledy time line—yet another Oscar-worthy role, says the buzz.

If you want to see a film about Margaret Thatcher’s life, as well as her myriad of controversies and contributions to the history of Britain, this is probably not the one to go to. If, however, you would like to see some great acting from Meryl Streep as she flashes from strong, hard, tyrant to older woman with dementia chatting with her own hallucinations, this is definitely the film to see. Either way, for all the buzz, The Iron Lady was still a bit of a disappointment. 

Follow Corinne on Twitter @CorinneGberg

Feminism, Margaret Thatcher, United Kingdom, Women's Rights