Critical Media Review’s second entry is fitting in this age of neo-liberal austerity. Sheamus Sweeney of Dublin City University reviews the biopic of that great warrior of neo-liberalism Margaret Thatcher. In ‘The Iron Lady’ the reviewer finds a film decontextualised of both politics and outcome and a recasting of Thatcher as a plain ‘grocers daughter’ and a feminist struggling in a man’s world.
The Iron Lady – Sheamus Sweeney DCU
Do you remember that episode of The Simpsons where Marge painted a portrait of Mr Burns as a frail and naked old man? One person looked at the painting and said, “he’s bad, but he’ll die. So I like it“. This is the best perspective from which to approach a film that displays as much historical and political insight into Thatcher’s life as any semi-attentive person would have picked up over the past thirty years. As the story is told from the perspective of an increasingly frail and confused old woman this could account for some of the more self-serving memories and omissions. On the other hand, Phyllida Lloyd (director) and Abi Morgan (writer) have suggested that one of the motivations behind the film was to explore the deterioration of somebody suffering from dementia. This is a little like suggesting that Downfall is an exploration of the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. Whatever the reasons, the decision to use such a device results in historical distortion that often borders on the grotesque. This is important because, whatever its shortcomings, the film is likely to become the dominant frame of reference for many people who lack firsthand memories of Thatcher’s premiership. It is so devoid of insight and detail that at times I found a completely different narrative running in my head like a vitamin supplement compensating for nutritional deficiencies.
For a start, my alternative narrative included women apart from Margaret Thatcher. She is reinvented, as Seumas Milne points out, as a pioneering feminist and class warrior; a petit-bourgeois Spartacus appropriating feminism for the right. She is a woman in a man’s world, and the cliché is startlingly apt. She is presented as the only, possibly the first, woman to enter the House of Commons. The benches of her own party are packed exclusively with white, middle aged men in suits. So too, are those of the opposition. In this version of history, there is no Barbara Castle or Shirley Williams shouting at her from the opposite side of the house. This film does not depict the under-representation of women in British politics. It suggests their complete absence. When other women do appear in the film it is either in a subordinate caring role, like the staff in Downing Street, or as cheerleaders on the election trail. Similarly, women are completely absent from the strikers and protesters who seem to regularly besiege the Prime Minister’s car. Admittedly, the steelworkers and mineworkers unions were exclusively male. Their sexual politics were often less than progressive. Much of the abuse hurled at Thatcher was sexist in nature, and the NUM’s internal newspaper still had a topless model on page three when the strike against pit closures began in 1984. Nevertheless, the narrative conflates big and small “c” conservatism in the most vulgar way. Thatcher is presented as a vulnerable, but strong woman at the mercy of powerful, but vacillating, men. Class distinctions are obliterated as wealthy Conservatives and trade unionists defending their jobs are simplistically reduced to leering men standing in Maggie’s way. The destruction of British manufacturing and the erasing of entire communities is sacrificed to the most offensive and reductive form of gender politics.
The miners’ strike itself and the IRA hunger strike are disposed of in brief segments of contemporary footage. Both would have been suitable candidates to showcase Thatcher’s renowned obstinacy and single-mindedness. Yet it is the Falklands war that fulfils this role, the enemy without being far less historically contentious than the enemy within. In general, satirical comparisons between The Iron Lady and Downfall are probably inevitable. In this part of the film they seem oddly appropriate, as Maggie faces down her own group of vacillating, defeatist generals and orders the sinking of the Belgrano. The irony that the Belgrano had survived the bombing of Pearl Harbour is lost even though Thatcher had cited the attack in a previous scene as a precedent for the defence of the Falklands.
If the film can be said to do a disservice to Thatcher it is in the way it reduces her political philosophy to obstinacy of character, hence her nickname and the film’s title. Towards the end of her tenure as prime minister, when this obstinacy becomes politically untenable it is in turn ascribed to her developing physical infirmity rather than ideological hubris. Her name may underpin neoliberal economics, but here Thatcherism is breezily reduced to good housekeeping and the common sense economics of the grocer’s daughter. Her conquest of the Tory leadership becomes a matter of a new hairstyle, and a better speaking voice. There is no mention of her admiration for Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, or of her fellow free marketeers in the Conservative Party. When some of the tory “wets” suggest that austerity medicine is killing the patient, the obvious contemporary resonance is bludgeoned beneath Thatcher’s single-minded insistence that the medicine will work. This may be effective as an illustration of character, but it does not help in any consideration of her legacy and influence.
At times, the omissions veer between the merely surreal to the offensive. In one scene late in the film, she imagines dancing with her husband, Denis. This becomes a recollection of other dances, notably with Ronald Reagan in the White House. And a dance with Nelson Mandela! Whether or not this was fictional, presented in this way it is a gross distortion of history as it is the one (indirect) reference made to apartheid South Africa. No reference is made to Thatcher’s opposition to economic sanctions against the regime, of her description of the ANC as a terrorist organisation, or of Mandela as a terrorist. Instead, she slides onto the dancefloor as a friend of freedom and a fighter against injustice. It is an especially revealing fabrication as noticeably missing from her dance card is her good friend Augusto Pinochet, fascist dictator of Chile. Given that her memory of the Falklands war is otherwise so clear, his absence is all the more puzzling considering how crucial his assistance apparently was.
On a couple of occasions, however, there are hints of an alternative film. Leaving Downing Street for the last time, while trampling some red rose petals for good symbolic measure, she says that they are leaving the country in a better state to that in which they found it. There is nothing in the film to suggest this. During a visit to the doctor, the elderly Thatcher complains that politics is now all about feelings rather than ideas. She makes an impassioned case for her anti-materialist ideology, explaining how ideas lead to actions, and how actions shape the world. Both examples suggest a different, more insightful, intelligent, and honest film than the current one.
Instead, in The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep excels in the role of an old woman with dementia who thinks she is Margaret Thatcher. In one sense, it is sadly appropriate that she is now a frail old woman, suffering from hallucinations. After all, we are living in the world she helped create and which most of us wish was simply a hallucination.