The Iron Lady: Tory glee and political fantasy

David Douglass reviews ‘The Iron Lady’ (director: Phyllida Lloyd, 2011), out on general release. First published in the Weekly Worker.

After huge hype – advanced publicity, huge billboard and bus adverts, gushing acquaintances of Margaret Thatcher on breakfast TV, a Jeremy Vine phone-in, Thatcher’s face haunting us everywhere again and Meryl Streep being canvassed for another Oscar basically for just taking on the role – The iron lady is crushingly disappointing. Politics has only a walk-on part in the film. As Streep herself has said, “It’s an imagined story of who she might be – probably not accurate” (Women’s hour January 6). Got it in one. In fact that could be a one-line review of the film.

Thatcher is an all too real character, but she is located in an entirely fictional world. The writer has taken the character and imagined what it must be like for Thatcher in ill health, with dementia; imagined how her memories might haunt her, how her past plays out in her mind.

This fictional reconstruction of her life starts with an old women in a mac – a traditional working class housewife, headscarf on her head – having popped out for some milk to the corner shop, ignored and unrecognised. As well she might be, for this is meant to be Margaret Thatcher. Then we see flashbacks to a lower middle class shop-owner’s daughter, hard at work delving out measures of sugar and lard in a working class community. Her dad, though the Tory leader of Grantham town council, has a distinct working class accent and talks homely home truths of thrift and enterprise.

This is in stark contrast to her adoption of aristocratic diction and haughty mannerisms at Oxford University, though the makers do not explain it. Here we see a bright, young, attractive thing, flirting and dancing, fussing with her make-up. Is any of that real? One suspects little of it relates to anything other than the writer’s attempt to invent a ‘rags to riches’, ‘I’ve come from the streets’ narrative. Indeed the film has Thatcher telling her Oxbridge colleagues in the cabinet how she came from the bottom and understands the masses because she has been one of them! Even if that were true – and it isn’t – can anyone imagine Thatcher claiming that heritage after aspiring so hard to bump the queen from the throne and take her place? I recall the comment of HRH as to why she felt uncomfortable in Maggie’s presence: “I never know which of us is supposed to curtsey,” she is said to have responded.

The upper class followers of Thatcher who have made much of her “unique fashion sense” and “style” do not see this simply as the uniform of the rich Tory women faithful – the only “unique” thing about it is that it at once identifies the lady with would-be aristocrats and petty royalty: all neatly styled hair, pearls and conservative twin sets.

Having set out her ‘struggle to the top’, the makers hope to have won the audience to the side of Thatcher when it comes to her political trajectories. Director Phyllida Lloyd admits: “The whole story is told from her point of view” – and justified accordingly. Although, to be more accurate, it is probably what she imagines her point of view might be – this film makes no claims of actual biography, and especially none of political analysis. Jeremy Vine was at pains to convince us that, while we might not like Thatcher, we ‘have to admire her principles’ and the fact she was ideologically driven – it didn’t wash and the phone-in was swamped with callers expressing their outright hatred of her and her political legacy.

The film’s attempts at humour involve, strong put-downs of ‘the men’, whether the long suffering Denis (who is much stronger and independently willed in this film that in reality), her cabinet colleagues or the US ambassador. The portrayal of her assertiveness and dry wit drew irritating laughter from a small section of the Newcastle preview audience who watched The iron lady with me. I wanted to go over and slap them for being too stupid to realise that such dialogue is totally invented. While she did in reality get her gob round some memorable phrases – “the enemy within” and “U-turn if you want to: the lady is not for turning” – these remarks were not among them. A scriptwriter wrote them and put them into the fictional mouth of the character.

So, other than this being a hard-working girl from the lower classes who makes it to the top through her own effort, what is the other conclusion the film is urging us to draw? The view is very strongly pushed that Thatcher is a feminist. Streep in her Women’s hour interview expresses the view that no other advocate of her politics attracts anything like the hatred she does, and this can only be because it was a women advancing them, not a man. It takes the female presenter to remind her that Thatcher was an anti-feminist.

All of Thatcher’s rhetoric regarding women was connected to their role as mothers, housekeepers and shoppers, not as economists, politicians or activists, and the effect of her policies has been fiercely anti-women – especially anti the aspirations of working class women and girls. Yet still the film persists in trying to paint that picture. We are shown the Thatcher-eye view of her entering parliament as a lone woman in an exclusive male club – as if a number of strong women, especially working class Labour women, had not been there before her, or were not still slogging it out in those chambers. One expects that this whole caricature is aimed at the US audience, who will not know this is sheer invention.

When it comes to the actual political aspects of the film, we might be surprised to find she has the leadership of the Tory Party thrust upon her unwilling self! Not the fierce and relentless faction fight she in fact waged against Ted Heath – a fight to replace him and his ‘one nation Toryism’ with herself and naked class war. We are reliably informed that neither she nor Keith Joseph voted in the ‘Who rules Britain?’ election because they wanted to bring Heath down.

In the portrayal of the mass working class opposition, I can find no fault. It is clearly presented that her policies were being violently rammed down our throats and that they were characterised by injustice and inequality. I do not know if this part of the film was made by different folk from those who made the first part, but it certainly feels like it – the whole thing ends up as a kind of ‘push me, pull me’ weld of two conflicting measures of the woman and her policies.

The chronology of events is strangely chopped and changed, much in the style that the BBC famously cut and reversed footage of the Orgreave picket and police clashes. In that piece of historic reconstruction, a fierce police and cavalry charge into placid pickets, who then retaliate with missiles (lumps of clay actually, though they looked like half-bricks on the TV news), is reversed to show the hapless police officers coming under attack by brick-throwing pickets and forced to retaliate. In the film, we have the miners’ strike of 1984-85 taking place before the 1982 Falklands war. Why? Because otherwise we would have the Falklands ‘achievement’ and the crest of the nationalist wave first, followed by the tyranny of the state’s response to the miners, and then the mass poll tax movement and riot. This would have suggested a brief period of popularity, followed by decline, mounting opposition and state repression. It would have made the counter-image of Thatcher as a stubborn fanatic too strong. So we have the episodes jumbled up: first the miners’ strike, then the Falklands victory, then the poll tax.

Even then we would still have got a strongly repellent portrayal of a rightwing zealot if the whole film had not been dominated by all that fictional, sentimental pap. The first two-thirds of the film are meant to nail this image in our heads so deeply that it cannot be dislodged by her manic egotism. This ploy does not actually succeed – although grandees of the Tory establishment have wet themselves with glee to see Maggie’s face everywhere: this film is the greatest propaganda coup for the Conservative Party they could ever dream of. And The iron lady is supposed to cement her reputation as some super-visionary politician etched into the national character, to be honoured with a state funeral.

Margaret Thatcher’s actual legacy is not shown in this rewrite of history. That legacy can be seen in the desolation, poverty and hopelessness of working class Britain. In the end of productive manufacturing, of trade union strength, of solidarity and of visions of a fairer, socialist alternative to greed and ‘dog eat dog’. In the rise of money capital, in finance speculation and in the gradual replacement of industrial bricks and mortar with a house of cards. Those abandoned, traditional, working class communities – the north, the valleys, Scotland and the inner cities – would make a suitable final scene for this film, rather than the long dead ghost of Denis walking out on Thatcher, leaving her finally totally alone.

Depressingly tedious, The iron lady is a missed opportunity, which hopefully someone more inspired will revisit in the not too distant future.

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