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A belated review of The Iron Lady

A few weeks ago I went to see The Iron Lady, a film based on the life – so we are led to believe – of Margaret Thatcher. I have been slack at writing up my thoughts about it, and there have been a number of good reviews already, with one of the best coming from an old Thatcher friend and confidant, John O’Sullivan, who now writes over at National Review. His thoughts chime very closely with mine, particularly on what I thought was the least convincing aspect of the film, namely, its portrayal of Denis Thatcher:

“If “Denis” is not Denis, then, who is he? As a hallucination produced by her mind/imagination/conscience, he is presumably a reflection of the inmost “feelings” that, as she boldly tells her doctor, she distrusts (preferring “thoughts”). But has anybody heard Mrs. Thatcher express the “feelings” relayed through “Denis,” either today or before she began to suffer the ravages of age? None of her friends or former colleagues can remember her doing so. Nor do they ring true as typically “her.” And that being the case, “Denis” is really a ventriloquist’s dummy for the scriptwriter and director.”

Some of the criticisms of the film that I have read seem to miss the point, and I note that O’Sullivan shares my view. For instance, he does not mock the film for not giving us a lot more background detail on the issues that shaped Mrs Thatcher’s time in office, such as the trades union struggles, inflation, economic sclerosis, the Cold War, the euro, and so on. Of course, a filmmaker can paint in subtle, Monet-style dabs rather than try and impose a massive history lesson. I don’t blame the producers and directors for not going in for a lot of detail.

Of course, I get the feeling that some of the younger generation, or those from far afield, who had not read up much about the Thatcher administration, might find some of the details a bit confusing. For instance, if so many of the senior Tories were such patrician snobs, how come she won the leadership against, say, the late Willie Whitelaw or Ian Gilmour? The reason, as O’Sullivan explains, is that the rank and file of the Tories, and many MPs, admired her and were more in tune with her brand of politics. But it makes for better drama to show this Lincolnshire lass, with her hats and elocution-lesson accent, surrounded by a sea of gibbering Etonians.

In general, though, I still found the film to be absorbing, and with clear sympathy for its subject, if not for all of the things that happened under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Meryl Streep’s performance is extraordinary as an example of an actress at the height of her powers. It is downright eerie at times.

As a final point, there is the legitimate concern that it is wrong to make such a film about a person suffering from such ill-health when its subject is still alive. Those who make that argument have a point. I respect, for example, the decision of Charles Moore, official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, not to publish his book until she has stepped off this mortal coil. But then Mr Moore is a High Tory gentleman. People who make films, by and large, are not.

2 comments to A belated review of The Iron Lady

  • David

    I have not seen the film, but two things worry me:
    1 – having seen excerpts, I feel that Ms Streep’s voice is much too high throughout the film, not taking into account the dropping of the pitch of the voice after PR advice; also she appears much too wide eyed in the pictures I have seen.
    2 – the underlying motives of her career; the narrative seems to be that she was driven to get to the top in politics while riding roughshod over the interests of he husband and family. This is a complete distortion of the facts. Dennis was always completely supportive of her ambition until perhaps at the very end, and Carol has always said what a caring and thoughtful mother she was. The incident about teaching her to drive is a particularly egregious example. This feels like the producer/director shoehorning his views about women in politics directly into the film.

  • Stephen Willmer

    Jonathan, your description of Charles Moore as a high Tory gentlemen (IMO, and perhaps yours, something of a back-handed compliment) is one I would generally agree with. But if he has really made it publicly known that he is witholding publication of his book about MT until after she is in conference with her maker, then I question that description. I mean, if I were the subject of his book (coud happen!), my reaction would be, “gee, thanks!”