The Irony of The Iron Lady
The Iron Lady, which has been praised above all for Meryl Streep’s powerful portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, has some other good features as well, like the presence of several good supporting actors, especially Jim Broadbent, who plays Thatcher’s husband Denis, for most of the movie a deceased ghostly hallucination and Greek chorus. It has apparently not been that big a hit with general audiences, perhaps because too much of the story had been given away in the heavy advance publicity, perhaps due to its many and sometimes confusing quick jumps back and forth in time. But critics have mostly been kind, enraptured by Streep’s performance. Even admirers of the real Thatcher, including British Conservatives who knew her well personally, were relieved to find that the film was not just an elaborate hatchet job, although the amount of it devoted to the elderly and failing Thatcher made John O’Sullivan aptly comment that it would have been better entitled The Lioness in Winter.
Nonetheless, The Iron Lady is an unsatisfactory film, even something worse. One major cause is not a weakness particular to it, but one found in a long list of movies of the last decade that have drawn Academy Awards and other plaudits for the lead actor or pair of actors. There is nothing wrong with an occasional play or film that is quite obviously more a vehicle for one or two splendid virtuoso performances, but enough already. It can scarcely be said anymore that the play’s the thing; nowadays, on Broadway and the West End as well as in movies, only the actors really matter. They are more and more diminishing the stories and scripts, with writers deploying most of their own talents in providing scenes in which the actors can shine. The tendency can be seen in films as different as Million Dollar Baby and The King’s Speech.
This doesn’t matter very much when the film is of a purely fictional story, or rediscovers new possibilities in otherwise minor past people and events, as in The Man Who Was Peter Pan or My Week With Marilyn. But movies that are almost entirely showcases for the actors can be immensely irritating when they are about significant historical personages and events that still matter in the present world. Dramatic films have not often been that successful in recapturing authentic history at the best of times, but their makers now seem to be losing even the capacity to provide alternative myths. Sometimes the result has been an obvious shambles, as in Anonymous, in which talented British actors were dragged through an asinine script. In others, like The King’s Speech and The Iron Lady, the script and editing are good enough that the audience and most critics are so delighted by the terrific lead performance that the film gets praised overall. But this has some serious bad consequences, Films of this kind are not only unlikely to endure as memorable and repeatedly enjoyed classics, but contribute to the general infantilization of modern culture, joining with the more obviously flawed mixture of brilliant technical effects and brainless storytelling of blockbuster markers like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.
Meryl Streep has provided a brilliant mimicry of Margaret Thatcher’s visible personality, and The Iron Lady also offers a more universal’ portrait of ambitious youth, triumphant middle age, and frailty, loneliness, and dementia in final years. But it it is not a good ‘political’ movie, as this could be said of, say, the original All the King’s Men of 1947, in which Broderick Crawford played a fictionalized Huey Long, or even a bad one, like that film’s feeble recent remake with Sena Penn in the Crawford role. The Iron Lady is not a political movie at all. It is a woman’s movie, not all that different from movies about other famous female personalities, like Coco Chanel, Marilyn Monroe, or Jackie Kennedy, with similar preoccupations: physical appearance and style; courage and vulnerability; and above all else, relations with men.
Applied to Thatcher, that is quite enough to provide a compelling story, sometimes a quite moving one, but while the approach is also all that is really required for a Coco or a Marilyn, it has been bound to make a fundamentally inadequate movie about Thatcher, who was never, even to her strongest admirers of either sex, a female or feminist icon, but above all a political leader, and a leader drawing on political and economic ideas, held with great conviction.
There is scarcely a trace of these ideas in the film, even as objects of criticism. Its rapid and very incomplete sequence of political events is provided without context or explanation. Younger audience members, for example, would gain no idea at all that there was such a thing as the Cold War, much less that Thatcher was a major player in fighting it right through its final decade. Nor would any viewer get much sense of the ideological divisions within the Conservative Party; there is no indication that Thatcher carried forward the ideas of immediate predecessors like Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph. There is no explanation of how and why Thatcher became the successor of Edward Heath,, nor of the failures of both Heath’s policies and those of his Labour successors in the grim 1970s. The Labour Leader she faced when in power, Michael Foot, is shown as a mere cipher. Nor is more than the quickest and most glancing attention given to her close alliance with Ronald Reagan. Sometimes the movie has such quick references as to make the viewer wonder if it is a ruthlessly trimmed version of a much longer account.
The movie labours the singularity of Thatcher’s triumph in the Conservative Party, but makes it incomprehensible. It shows only her husband Denis, her early champion Airey Neave, and one or two other Conservatives at most, offering her support and loyalty. The rest of the leading figures of the 1970s and 1980s British Conservative Party are shown as being entirely a privileged Old Boys’ club.. This portrayal makes it impossible to understand why they would ever have let her become Party Leader and Prime Minister in the first place. It also has to ignore the fact that Edward Heath, not only her predecessor, but her permanent bitter enemy, both personally and in terms of domestic and foreign policies, was as much the product of a grocer’s family as she was. Those who supported and opposed her were not simply divided on class lines; she won majority support in her party by successfully opposing the ideas of free-market economics and individual liberty to the powerful Conservative traditions of ‘one England’ and noblesse oblige.
So poetic license could serve well enough to offer a version of the mythic ‘woman’s story’ of the first female British Prime Minister, but it did not merely ignore the political history; it obliterated political ideas of all kinds from the last third of the 20th century. Scrubbing out that history did not just diminish the real scale of Thatcher’s achievement; it also gave a version of her story that was a great deal less important and interesting than the real one.
When Tom Cruise got the odd idea of making Valkyrie, in which he played Claus Von Stauffenberg, the courageous German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944, he did not give anything like as virtuoso a Stauffenberg as Meryl Streep’s Thatcher. But at least Cruise seems to have realized that Stauffenberg was a more important person than he was. The Iron Lady does show Thatcher’s courage, and her forceful and uncompromising character in office. But it conveyed little sense that she was not just the first female Prime Minister, but one of the most powerful people in the world thirty years ago, who stood for political and economic ideas. and for moral values. in a way seldom seen before and not seen since. The implicit message of the movie was that Meryl Streep is more important than Margaret Thatcher, and that is not just poetic license, but a terrible injustice.