The Iron Lady (12A)

Streep is every inch Margaret Thatcher, but can’t save the film from failure

I was nine in November 1990, when Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation. My mum was so delighted she came to the school gates to tell me the news. I let a few others know and within minutes there were hundreds of us leaping about and dancing, singing “Ding-dong! The Witch is Dead!” from The Wizard of Oz. So I suppose it’s reasonably accurate to say she wasn’t universally liked in my town.

There are lots of reasons why it is quite likely that she wasn’t in yours either, and why your local cinema might not be full to bursting with Maggie fans despite the huge publicity campaign. As Seumas Milne reminded us this week:

“This is a politician, after all, who never won the votes of more than a third of the electorate; destroyed communities; created mass unemployment; deindustrialised Britain; redistributed from poor to rich; and, by her deregulation of the City, laid the basis for the crisis that has engulfed us 25 years later. Thatcher was a prime minister who denounced Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, defended the Chilean fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet, ratcheted up the cold war, and unleashed militarised police on trade unionists and black communities alike. She was Britain’s first woman prime minister, but her policies hit women hardest, like Cameron’s today.”

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why this “not a political film” “told from her point of view” is so wide of the mark. Thatcher was an intensely political figure, whose rise and fall was the result of complex social forces. But director Phyllida Lloyd retreats to an ‘individual’ view of Thatcher, in a sad philosophical echo of the latter’s famous quote that “there is no such thing as society”. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Thatcher would have told the story differently, and that points to anything but impartiality.

But for much of the film, the fictionalised modern day Thatcher character (Meryl Streep) doesn’t even rise to the level of individual in any real sense. Instead she is merely a lonely, senile old woman who struggles with memories – especially of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) – and wishes her kids would visit more. Tellingly, it is these scenes which are the most powerful, because most of us know or have known an elderly widow like that, and on some level most of us probably fear ending up more or less alone like that in our last days.

Protesters make their feelings clear outside a screening in Chesterfield

Modern day Thatcher’s shaky recollections of her political career form the basis of the remainder. But recollections is all they are. Thatcher shows no real signs of pleasure or sadness at the memories – except when they are to do with her family. So there is no sense of criticism at all. Whether it is her constituency selection meeting, taking on Labour leader Michael Foot across the dispatch box, or intimidating Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe into acquiescence, Thatcher is portrayed as winning out over male opponents because of her passion for the ultra right neoliberal cause, and remarkable self-belief.

But as David Broder observed in his review:

“It constantly venerates her sense of purpose and determination, her sureness in her principles. In a conversation with her doctor, when he asks how she feels, she complains that people always talk about their inner feelings, not about what they think, or what action is necessary. In contrast to such behaviour, she wears her politics on her sleeve. So the film makes a strange kind of tribute to Thatcher: how can you champion someone’s sureness that their principles are right and indeed necessary, regardless of any judgement on whether they are indeed correct? If a politician takes their beliefs seriously, surely they would want others to take them seriously too, rather than merely celebrate the fact that these beliefs exist?”

How can you? Well…you can’t! If – like many of today’s super-rich – you admire Thatcher’s policies, you will delight in her ‘gumption’, or whatever old-fashioned word you choose for her characteristics. If – like many others from different social layers – you despise her politics, you’ll find yourself despairing as your hopes and aspirations are trampled under her heels. Worse still, you are simply not given an eloquent voice in the film. The Tory ‘wets’ were still Tories – if more cautious ones, Foot is shown as a hopeless dreamer, and working class dissent is limited to people throwing things in the Toxteth or Trafalgar Square riots, as miners get battered to the ground by those militarised police.

While class politics is almost entirely absent – except in terms of Thatcher’s own rise from less than aristocratic origins – Lloyd’s liberal feminism is pushed to the forefront. The director claims she was extremely pleased when Thatcher became the first female PM “through the door” of Number 10, and there is no reason to doubt this. For her, Thatcher’s gender alone makes her worthy of praise, no matter how badly her policies affected the vast majority of women, and of course men and children too. In the end, her “global stardom” ended “in true tragic style”, and Thatcher was brought down by her own sense of invincibility and nothing more.

Meryl Streep – perhaps the finest actress of her generation – utterly inhabits the skin of Thatcher, to such an extent that I often felt like I was watching a documentary. But if it was a documentary, it would otherwise be an extraordinarily bad one. With Thatcher’s heirs continuing to wage bitter war on almost everyone but the elites she herself courted and so greatly aided, this is an utterly establishment-friendly, glossy portrait of a woman hated around the world. Anything else would have been rocking the boat at a time when working class anger is rising to even greater heights. No doubt The Iron Lady will be given pride of place in TV schedules on the day of her state funeral.

Until then, “I just can’t feel sorry for her…I just can’t”, as my girlfriend commented as we left the theatre. After all, many widowed women Thatcher’s age are shivering to death at this very moment because of her political legacy. We can be sure that ‘the iron lady’ will live in the greatest comfort until the moment she is melted down for scrap.