Movie Review: The Iron Lady

In 1979, when the Labour government lost the confidence of Parliament, the PM called a general election. When the date was announced, the world’s media descended on the suburban home of the Leader of Opposition. The election was of interest internationally, because the Opposition was well ahead in the opinion polls, and the Leader of the Opposition was a woman. No European democracy had ever had female leader. But the Conservative Leader was giving no press conference that evening, she was cooking her husband’s dinner. Instead of going back into her house she walked to the supermarket. The world’s media followed. As she did her shopping, she delivered an impromptu lesson on everything that was wrong with Britain “look at the price of this!” “I have been so fortunate. I am not sure how people manage on a nurse’s salary, or a teacher’s” Government price controls were dismissed by simply showing people that the goods with controlled prices were not available to buy. And then there was her favorite message: “every housewife knows how to balance a budget, so why can’t the government?” It was Margaret Thatcher at her magnificent best.

Of all the scenes not included in the movie, that was the one this reviewer missed the most. The Iron Lady is superb theater. Meryl Streep captures both Thatcher in her prime and the confused Baroness with Alzheimer’s with the brilliance of an Oscar winner. The actors playing husband Dennis, daughter Carol, and the young Margaret Roberts are also excellent. Look out for Jim Broadbent taking an Oscar as well as Ms Streep.

The focus on her Alzheimer’s adds pathos, but diminishes the pleasure for those who want to see more of the politics. It is probably necessary. The left in Britain is still not reconciled to Thatcher personally, though has not sought to undo her political legacy. While America’s Democrats have largely come to accept Ronald Reagan, the British left still spits the name “Thatcher” with hatred. Alzheimer’s makes her sympathetic to even her deepest political opponent. Meryl Streep, an outspoken liberal, has commented that she misses Thatcher’s ‘clarity’.

But the politics is missing. We see the Prime Minister watching the fall of the Berlin Wall, but otherwise victory in the Cold War is barely mentioned. Ronald Reagan is hardly featured: we see him dancing with Thatcher and a photo of them together takes pride of place on her mantelpiece. Her famous phone call to George H W Bush after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait – “Now is not the time to go wobbly, George. This shall not stand” – does not feature. We do not even see her declaring to the Conservative Conference that “the Lady’s not for turning”.

Instead we see her in long conversations with her deceased husband, though, despite her confusion, there have been no hints of the real Baroness suffering hallucinations. Despite the humanity Streep brings to Alzheimer’s, the best scenes are the flashbacks: The Falklands recaptured is one such. Most importantly, the miners’ strike stands apart in this observer’s memory. Three PMs in succession were defeated and driven from office by labor unrest. It took a very special leader to defeat the unions. Cold War victory was mostly Reagan’s legacy, though perhaps he could not have succeeded without his stalwart ally.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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