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.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.