The Iron Lady, Film Review by Yuan Yi Zhu


Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, her 2011 biopic of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Prime Minister between 1979 and 1992, has been much commented upon since its release. Much has been said about the artistic quality of the film, especially Meryl Streep’s masterful performance as Lady Thatcher. But though the film is a remarkable piece of entertainment, as a work of popular history its flaws are enormous. Indeed, one wonders if the film even merits that description: whatever history that may be found in the work has been systematically de-contextualized, twisted, and the overall narrative presents such a distortion of Thatcher’s career and of her times, especially whenever her gender is concerned, that it may be better described as an artistic fantasy – though the film’s creators have consistently maintained it is indeed a history-based work.

The film starts with in the mid-2000s, with a Lady Thatcher who is frail and senile, and who still thinks her husband is alive, though he passed away years ago. After having shown enough of her physical and mental decline, the film looks back at her life in a series of flashbacks, interrupted with additional scenes of her decline. We are first shown a young Margaret Roberts, the grocer’s daughter, making her way through the world, and stumbling here and there because of her lower-middle-class origins. At a dinner given for perspective candidates for a constituency, she is gently mocked by Tory grandees, and she suffers the humiliation of having to leave the room with the ladies at the end. She loses the election, but meets and marries Denis Thatcher along the way.

Then, she makes the way to the House of Commons, where her gender and class background put her at a great disadvantage. In Commons debates her shrill voice is mocked mercilessly by her Labour opponents, and in the Cabinet she is condescended at and ignored. Then she challenges Edward Heath for the Conservative leadership and wins first the leadership, then the Premiership. At this point, more than half of the film has already elapsed, and her eleven years at Downing Street are mostly presented through contemporary archival footage. Of the period between the 1982 Falklands War and her downfall in 1990 almost nothing is shown. She is duly pushed to resign by her colleagues in that year, and after having gotten rid of a personal daemon, the film ends on a melancholic note.

As might have transpired from the synopsis above, the film is rather light where history is concerned, a curious defect for a political biopic, where the protagonist’s career should be the natural focus of the storyline. In The Iron Lady, Thatcher’s career and the times she lived in are reduced to a series of context-free clichés which lack any depth. In contrast, the trailer, replete with scenes from her political life, clearly sought to sell the film as a serious historical film, rather than one about senility, to which it veers towards at times. Also, while it is understandable that a mass-market film should have some historical inaccuracies and simplifications for the sake of accessibility, in this film they are too important to be ignored. The miners’ strike, one of the defining moments of her career, is never mentioned; her fight against communism is only obliquely referred to, and the Irish issue merits twenty seconds of newsreel footage, accompanied by nothing more substantial than 80s pop music. It is hard to imagine how the average viewer should have learned anything from the film.

The de-contextualization of historical events is one of the film’s most serious problems. There is unanimous agreement among historians that Thatcher’s premiership was a period of great upheaval for Britain, whose effects are still hotly disputed today. In the film, Thatcher gives her ministers an economics lecture in 1981, wins a war in 1982, and from then on until 1990 there are riots and people getting rich, shown through contemporary footage. What happens then and how these events were related to Thatcher’s actions? The film does not say. In the same vein, the infamous garbage strikes of the 70s are shown, but the underlying causes (inflation and economic problems) is a mystery for the viewer. The narrative is essentially the follows: Britain was in bad shape, Thatcher came to power, and things sorted themselves out thanks to her. The nature of Britain’s predicaments, what she did to transform her country, and more importantly, what were the effects of her actions, are conspicuously absent from the film.

The director’s treatment of gender, a sine qua non of any historically-informed discussion about Thatcher, is almost disgraceful at times. Debates about the effects of her policies aside, few historians would deny she was a trailblazer for women in British politics, a fact which the film acknowledges. But it does so in a strange way, one which seems to be calculated to undermine the point whenever it is brought up. To wit, in the scene where Denis asks to marry her, she makes a forceful speech about her refusal to be “one of those women who stay silent and pretty on the arm of her husband.”  But the text is delivered in such an uncertain (even wimpy) voice that the important historical point – her refusal to follow the gender roles of her time – is wholly lost on the viewer. Instead, we are given the kind of saccharine sentimental scene that may have been pulled out from a 30s romantic film.

Another very problematic scene concerns the resignation of Sir Geoffrey Howe, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the film, Thatcher is shown at a Cabinet giving a bossy dressing-down to Howe, which leads to his resignation. Existing scholarship agrees that his resignation was because of a substantial policy dispute – whether Britain should adopt the Euro. But by dodging the serious policy point (something the film does throughout) and by attributing the resignation to her supposed (and gendered) character defects, the film puts personality above substance. Furthermore, the charge of bossiness was one of the sexist lines of attacks her opponents used with great regularity, and for it to be used in the film is to perpetuate the sexist stereotypes which dodged her whole career, a historical travesty of the first order.

Similarly, in the few scenes where she expounds her political philosophy, the fictional speeches that are fed into her mouth by the script are vapid, commonplace, and are wholly sentimental rather than intellectual. One thing Thatcher scholarship can agree upon (and there are preciously few of these) is that she was a rare politicians who thought ideas mattered. She regularly bought in leading intellectuals to help her formulate policy and to buttress her positions. Her speeches are replete with political philosophy, and contained numerous references to thinkers like Hayek and Oakshott. Though these facts can be found in every Thatcher biography, they are never hinted at in the film. At times, from her speeches in the film, one is reminded of the vulgar, simple middle-class housewife stereotype often used against her by her opponents, which the film reinforces.

The above must raise the question of why such an approach, which ignores existing scholarship in its entirety and resuscitates ugly stereotypes of the past, should have been adopted here, especially for a rare film about a female politician. Possibly this came from a commercial calculation that the film will do better if it dwells on the personal aspect rather on the more substantial issues, and that the audience will not appreciate being “hectored at by a woman” (as Gordon Reece, Thatcher’s image consultant, says in the film). In addition, while in scholarship, gender is used to enhance historians’ understanding of the past, in The Iron Lady gender is used to obscure it, for her gender, not her actions, are at the forefront, and in the worst way imaginable. In other words, the film portrays Thatcher as a woman who happened to be a politician, rather than a politician who was a woman. One cannot imagine a similar approach being used if the film had been about a male politician, and there is no reason to adopt it there, unless the film was specifically about her personal life, rather than her career and achievements, as the trailers seemed to indicate.

Apart from the acting, one is hard pressed to find anything positive about the film. Certainly it introduced Thatcher to generations which have no memories of her, and gave some popular exposure to post-war British history. But it ignores the large body of Thatcher scholarship, is based on no discernible historiographical school, disregards fundamental facts, portrays her using misogynistic caricatures of the past, avoids any substantive issue, and is mostly made up of time-worn clichés. And to those who would argue that successful films about political figures must involve the watering down of history, one can invoke films such as The Last King of Scotland which, though not perfect by any means, paint accurate portraits of their protagonists and of their agendas. But after watching The Iron Lady, it is impossible to tell what motivated her, what she did, or what her beliefs were. Nothing is added to our understanding of Thatcher; indeed, it may distort popular understanding of the Thatcher era for a generation. Now that she has passed away and her excellent official biography is being published, it is hoped that another enterprising director shall film her story in a way that is less offensive to the historical discipline.

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