The Iron Lady
In the spring of 2001, at the Conservative Party Conference in Plymouth, Margaret Thatcher made a joke. She was then seventy-five, and had been out of office for more than ten years, much of it spent as the hectoring conscience of her party. Now she told the faithful that on her way to the conference hall (that old standby of the stand-up), she had passed a cinema that was showing a film called The Mummy Returns. No, jokes were never her forte. Maybe she knew it was a horror film, maybe not. Maybe she imagined that the hall regarded her as a cuddly maternal figure, maybe not. As for the wider title “Mother of the Nation,” that was never likely to be awarded to a prime minister summed up by her biographer John Campbell as “the most admired, most hated, most idolised and most vilified public figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
Those who hated and vilified her, and also those who, without going that far, found her politics narrow-minded, tub-thumping, and socially divisive, might well gasp in horror at the photorealist impersonation of her by Meryl Streep in the biopic The Iron Lady. A liberal friend of mine told me that after only a few seconds of the film’s trailer, “all my loathing instantly returned.” And there are moments in the film when, as one who lived through the Thatcher years, I found my reaction to Streep in the film identical to my reaction at the original time: for instance, to the creepy piousness with which, newly back from kissing hands with the Queen, she stood outside Downing Street, intoning in that fake voice of hers a chunk of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony….” Harmony was never anything Mrs. Thatcher thrived on, nor sought to achieve, nor even achieved by chance.
She is now eighty-six, widowed since 2003, and suffering from Alzheimer’s. This is the film’s starting point and structuring mechanism. More or less confined to her flat, watched over by minders and her underappreciated daughter Carol, she slips in and out of dementia. Imagining her husband Denis still alive, she calls into being his jolly, cajoling, grumpy embodiment (Jim Broadbent, who a few years ago was filmically married to the demented Iris Murdoch in Iris). Meanwhile, present happenings evoke past events: thus, watching on television the terror attack on the Mumbai hotel in 2008, Mrs. Thatcher is reminded of the IRA‘s bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, in 1984, which might well have killed her and most of her cabinet.
Streep’s portrayal of the state of dementia—the panic and the paranoia, the childishness followed by shaky reassertion of adulthood, the slippings and delusions—is exact, as is its scripting by Abi Morgan. In one powerful scene, desperate to drive the image of Denis from her head, she turns on every machine—telly, radio, blender, and so on—until the whole apartment roars. At first we might be puzzled why Denis’s presence is not a comfort to her, why she increasingly rails against it. Then we realize that the sanity she holds on to insists that he is dead, so if he is still appearing to her, it means she is going mad. “I will not go mad, I will not,” she insists at one point, a deliberate invocation of Lear.
Until I saw the film, I felt queasy about its use of the framing device of dementia, on both moral and aesthetic grounds. Poor old lady (whatever she had been in her prime), invasion of privacy, copyright on your own life—those were the lines swilling around in my head. Also: would the film be using her pathetic condition to inspire sympathy and thus attempt to soften our view of the former prime minister? It’s a measure of Streep’s performance and the script’s integrity that most of these concerns are almost immediately dispelled. There is no false manipulation of emotion, while the question of privacy has already been somewhat forestalled by Carol Thatcher publishing a memoir in 2008, which described the extent of her mother’s dementia. Even so: “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven…”? Isn’t the comparison pushing it a bit? But it was evidently clear in the makers’ heads. Here is the director Phyllida Lloyd:
It’s a sort of King Lear story about a mighty leader who rises to power, against all the odds, who holds the line when others are losing their faith, who becomes a global superstar and then—either through their own hubris, or, as they see it, the treachery of everyone around them—crashes to an ignominious end.
Meryl Streep, in response to a BBC arts correpondent’s suggestion of “a Shakespearean element” to the film, put it more excitedly: “Oh, I love you, Will Gompertz! Oh my God! I always call this ‘Lear for girls,’ I said it, secretly.”
At the time of Mrs. Thatcher’s fall as party leader, the word “tragedy” was much invoked, usually with reference to Julius Caesar (while the upmarket commentator Peter Jenkins claimed to have observed a “tragic drama” rooted in Mrs. Thatcher’s “Nietzschean will”). The Conservative Party is traditionally more ruthless than others, and many MPs had certainly tired of her overbearingness; but they were also being ordinary, pragmatic politicians. Most thought Mrs. Thatcher couldn’t win a fourth election in a row, but somebody else could; and lo, that somebody else—John Major—duly did. Not really Caesar; and quite a bit short of Lear. Especially lacking is any parallel with Lear’s “pelican daughters.” Carol is shown as a dutiful if irritating woman while, cleverly, the frightful Mark is kept offscreen, his doting mother shown receiving a phone call to disappoint her yet again. If Lear’s daughters complained about the cost of upkeep for their father’s unruly knights, in less-than-tragic Britain the financial drain went in the opposite direction. In the Nineties Mrs. Thatcher cleared Mark’s debts amounting to an estimated £700,000 after his American business interests went belly-up, and in 2005 forked out £250,000 after her son was convicted of trying to overthrow—with a bunch of unruly knights of his own—the president of Equatorial Guinea.
Streep’s Mrs. Thatcher is eerily watchable and aurally exact (and she did not even use a voice coach). “Weak! Weak! Weak!” she cries, and all quail before her, not just male Tory ministers but probably some of the audience as well. In Britain both right and left have found the film confirming their convictions: that she was an inspiring, curative necessity (Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson called The Iron Lady “the most important political film for years”), or conversely the wicked witch of memory and legend. As at the time, so in the film: we are inevitably in some sort of thrall—of rapture or horror. The performance carries the film—and so it has to, because the story, as often in a biopic, can only be the story. And here it is one that is already deeply familiar: from corner shop to Downing Street, the British equivalent of log cabin to White House. And after that: the Falklands, economic deregulation, Ireland, the miners’ strike, Europhobia, “global superstar,” ousting, active retirement.
The biopic is obliged to follow most of the life’s curve; it also must implicitly follow truth’s curve when inventing. Was Mrs. Thatcher in the House of Commons underground garage when her friend Airey Neave was blown up a few yards away on the garage’s ramp by an IRA splinter group? No, but for the length of the scene, she might have been. Did she lose her temper in a cabinet meeting and tell dissenting Europhiles that if they disagreed with her, they should get on a boat to Calais, put on a beret, and pay 80 percent of their earnings to the French government? No, but for the moment, I was convinced she had done so. And these plausible divergences from fact will anyway matter much less to the non-British viewer.
Philip Larkin was one of those who adored Mrs. Thatcher. “I got the blue flash,” he reported after meeting her—that moment of what the diarist and Tory minister Alan Clark (who also adored her) described as Führer Kontakt. “Her great virtue,” Larkin told an interviewer in 1979, “is saying that two and two makes four, which is as unpopular nowadays as it has always been.” Later that year, he elaborated: “At last politics makes sense to me, which it hasn’t done since Stafford Cripps (I was very fond of him too). Recognizing that if you haven’t got the money for something you can’t have it—this is a concept that’s vanished for many years.”
Politicians are, inevitably, elected by people who know less about politics than they do, and Mrs. Thatcher’s favorite schtick was making out that a state’s fiscal responsibility was merely a scaled-up version of good housekeeping. Thrift, hard work, common sense: the housewife virtues were what she pushed, and she convinced many. Though of course whenever a government really wants to afford something—like the Falklands War—it does so; mysterious contingency funds are suddenly discovered (and their size kept from the public until much later). This is a bit like being attentive to the cost of a pint of milk while having a millionaire husband in the background—which was the case with Mrs. Thatcher.
She was, indubitably, a woman, and this film, whose writer, director, and star are all women, has stirred up again the question: Yes, but what sort of woman? Erin Pizzey, creator of the first refuge for battered women in Britain, wrote to the first woman prime minister to enter Downing Street, asking what she would do for victims of domestic violence. “I got a letter back,” Pizzey recently recalled, “to say that Margaret Thatcher was not interested in women’s issues.” She was a daddy’s girl, a mother who favored her son over her daughter, a woman who preferred male company, a politician whose feminism seems to have been purely demonstrative and solipsistic: I am a woman, and look what I have done, I had no special treatment, I took on the male establishment and won, so don’t whinge, just roll your sleeves up…and so on.
But her example—of a democratic triumph of the will—cuts both ways. Her rise to party and then national leadership may have been powerfully symbolic, but the normalization of sexual equality in the political process still has far to go. Labour is traditionally more pro-women, and Tony Blair’s first parliamentary intake contained the highest-ever proportion of women MPs (partly because his victory was far more sweeping than anticipated, and so women selected for supposedly unwinnable constituencies found themselves elected); but when Labour’s last leadership election was held in 2010, the candidates consisted of four similarly suited and similarly opinioned Oxbridge-educated white men, plus a single black woman, whose nomination was widely seen as more totemistic than credible. As for David Cameron’s Conservative-led government, it has only one woman in high office: Theresa May, the home secretary, who came to public awareness when, during the Tory years of opposition, she told the party conference that it had to shift its image of being “the Nasty Party”—in other words, turn from its hard-line Thatcherism.