By Salomon Rogberg.
Margaret Thatcher’s reign over England may have ended over twenty-one years ago, but she’s still a sensitive topic that can generate both anger and admiration. When Phyllida Lloyd’s new film, The Iron Lady (2011), was released in Sweden and Britain, it led to heated discussion amongst critics in the media. Some critics thought the movie was a successful portrait of a woman’s journey from being a milkman’s daughter to one of the world’s most powerful politicians. Others did not agree. One critic from the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet was disappointed that Thatcher was “idealized” and that the consequences of her politics were not problematised enough. Another from The Guardian wrote she was, “defanged, declawed, depoliticised.” A critic from the Financial Times wrote a sympathetic review of the film, but the next day found himself bombarded with hate emails.
In the movie’s first scene, Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) buys milk while busy customers pass her by without recognising her as their former prime minister. Thatcher is old and not strong like the “iron lady” she once was. This is reinforced when she’s back at home. There, we learn that she suffers from dementia, and is not allowed — like a child — to go outside by herself. Her power is gone. All that seems to be left are memories.
This first scene carries numerous meanings, and makes several references to Thatcher’s political and private life. Firstly, it references the private dimension — Margaret as non-politician. Just like most people begin their life breastfed on milk, Thatcher is here old and buying milk. But the scene also reminds us that she was once a milkman’s daughter. On a public level, the milk alludes to Thatcher’s political life. (In the 1970s, after having abolished free milk for school children, she was nicknamed “Mrs Thatcher The Milk Snatcher.”)
The Iron Lady is structured around Thatcher’s memories and things that mostly happen in her bedroom. Through her recollections we follow a young Thatcher (Alexandra Roach) working her way through life, defiant and set to become a significant politician in the Labour Party. In Thatcher’s bedroom however, we see a different person, an older and completely harmless Thatcher, who spends her days spying on her caretaker and daughter, and talking to Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent), her diseased husband’s ghost while she clears and packs away his clothes.
Denis is presented as a loyal husband, and not like Thatcher. He’s a silly, but charming and humorous man. At one point, Denis walks like Charlie Chaplin, swinging a walking stick around to amuse her.
At intervals in the movie, Thatcher regains her old self, that robust iron visage and attitude. During a doctor’s appointment, that her daughter has made her go to, Thatcher tells the doctor that she’s absolutely fine, he needn’t worry about her. As a way to convince him she says: “Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions …What we think we become.” The mind was then Thatcher’s most revered attribute, and not emotions. Ironically it’s the mind that dementia attacks and not the emotions.
We also learn why and how she was nicknamed the ‘”iron lady,” and why she became a much hated, but also loved person. She was disliked because she was ruthless. She closed coal mines that a lot of families were dependent on and she modernised the British unions. She didn’t think twice before implementing these changes and the results were huge brutal riots across Britain.
The movie tries to explain this and Thatcher’s political life by revealing aspects from her private life. A prominent theme is that Thatcher finds it difficult to let go of things. She has, for instance, not let go of her husband. This is an analogy the film makes by comparing Thatcher’s unwillingness to let go of Denis to the time when Thatcher didn’t want to leave her position as prime minister. She wouldn’t let go, and in the end she was forced to resign.
The Iron Lady has been criticised for focusing too much on Margaret Thatcher’s private life, rather than on her life as a politician. Even though Meryl Streep’s performance as Thatcher is strong, the critique is valid. The movie fails to do what is necessary when a film is made about a politician.
The problem with the film is that the story sneakily legitimises Thatcher’s political actions. It does this by overemphasising her dementia, which in effect disallows the viewer to fully criticise her. Instead, we get emotionally involved and inevitably sympathise with her as an ill person, but also as a politician. The question is: Does this make her politics and the consequences of them seem far less harmless than they were?
Salomon Rogberg is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.