Troy Media – by Pat Murphy
If one of the criteria for a successful historical drama is that it illuminates its subject matter, then The Iron Lady biopic misses the mark by some distance.
To be sure, Meryl Streep’s bravura performance dominates the screen, nicely capturing many of Margaret Thatcher’s vocal and physical mannerisms. But it gives us no idea as to why she was so successful politically.
And she was successful. Without the benefit of family pedigree or connections, Thatcher became the first female leader of Britain’s Conservative Party and went on from there to become the first female prime minister, winning not just a single election but three consecutive majority governments.
Labour reinvented itself in Thatcher’s image
Further, over a period of 11 years in office she so fundamentally reordered the British political scene that, in response, the opposition Labour Party found it necessary to reinvent itself. In the process, it moved towards her positions on a range of issues – in effect, partially reinventing itself in her image!
The movie provides few clues as to why any of this happened. Indeed, its fondness for intercutting newsreel footage of riots, all of which are implicitly blamed on Thatcher, makes you wonder how she could possibly have survived electorally.
Yes, she’s portrayed as smart, ambitious, determined, relentless, fearless, and formidable. But she’s also bullying, self-absorbed, egotistical, unaware, isolated, and entirely lacking in any of the persuasive arts.
If she’d been an hereditary monarch back when royalty ruled as well as reigned, then the degree to which she imposed her will would be explicable. But a grocer’s daughter from Grantham in England’s East Midlands, the first member of her family to even go to university? Clearly, there’s something missing from the picture.
In large measure, what’s missing is the chronic state of decay into which Britain had slipped by the mid-1970s. Thatcher prevailed because a series of preceding prime ministers, both Labour and Conservative, had whiffed, either through lack of insight, failure of nerve, or an unwillingness to offend key constituencies. However, the movie provides little of that context. As journalist John O’Sullivan aptly puts it: “This is a film about politics without politics.”
There’s also something not quite right in the movie’s portrait of the Conservative Party circa 1975. While it’s true that Thatcher had to overcome condescending sexism, O’Sullivan notes that she “was elected Tory leader almost entirely with male votes – but most of them male backbencher votes.” To the rank-and-file, the importance of tossing out its ineffectual leadership comfortably trumped the imperatives of male-chauvinism.
Then there’s the matter of personal relationships. The Iron Lady’s Thatcher is selfish to an extreme. Everything is all about her all the time.
One sequence particularly stands out. Thatcher has just given her teenage daughter, Carol, a driving lesson and the pair return to the house in good humour. Her husband, Denis, is also there so Thatcher takes the opportunity to tell them she has decided to run for the Conservative leadership. Both are angry and resentful, accusing her of neglect.
And for Denis, there’s an extra beef. Things aren’t going well in his business and the doctor has told him he needs a rest, but his wife is too preoccupied to pay any attention. So he takes off for South Africa without her noticing that he’s gone.
The columnist Virginia Postrel has taken issue with this rendering, describing it as “worse than fabricated.” Yanking actual events out of context and running them together, the movie scores a point that is thematically critical but historically dubious.
Good performance, bad history
As Postrel tells it, the South African sabbatical actually took place a decade prior to Thatcher’s leadership run and Denis sold his business shortly afterwards. Similarly, the driving lessons happened years earlier and Carol was an adult law student at the time her mother ran for leader.
Mere dramatic licence? Perhaps, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that reality is being hammered into a preconceived shape, especially given that contemporary accounts describe Denis as being very proud of his wife’s accomplishments.
Still, if you want to catch a splendid acting performance and some nicely composed scenes, The Iron Lady will fit the bill. Just don’t expect much by way of historical elucidation.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy is a history and economics graduate from University College Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed articles to the National Post, History Ireland, Irish Connections Canada, and Breifne.
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