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The Iron Lady Battles On

  • John O'Sullivan

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher poses with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1987.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher poses with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in 1987.

“The Iron Lady” is a term originally coined by a Red Army newspaper in 1975 to demonize Margaret Thatcher. It proved instead to be an uncanny prediction of her part in weakening the Red Army and destroying the Soviet Union in the final stages of the Cold War. It is, however, an ironic title at best for this depiction of the darkening days in retirement of the last British prime minister to play a decisive role in world politics. May I suggest instead “The Lioness in Winter.”
The film’s narrative is framed as a series of flashbacks in the memory of an elderly Lady Thatcher grieving in the present over the death of her husband some years before. We first encounter her as a slightly confused old lady who, having improbably escaped her police escort, is buying a pint of milk in a local store. She returns home to complain about its price to Denis who turns out to be as lively in death as he was in life.
He crops up regularly throughout the narrative of his wife’s rise and fall, joking, chiding, encouraging, and correcting her memories, her decisions, her ambition, and not least her selfishness. She packs his old clothes for a charity shop while struggling to come to terms with the reality of his death. When others are around, he conveniently disappears into the woodwork; when no one else is there, they bicker about the past. Whether Lady Thatcher is aware that “Denis” is a hallucination is left unclear. At the end of the movie, however, all his belongings having been dispatched, “Denis” follows them into a blaze of light, leaving his wife alone and bereft.
Several critics otherwise favorable to “The Iron Lady” have criticized this framing device as distasteful. To portray a living person, especially a distinguished statesman, as suffering from senile delusions is thought to be intrusive and distasteful. That is a fair criticism. It is. But it need not have been a disabling one if Denis’s commentaries had been kept within limits. They are, however, almost the whole movie or at least its central narrative. Margaret Thatcher’s actual historical achievements appear largely as sketchy memories in her own mind refracted through Denis’s criticisms.
It matters greatly therefore who “Denis” is and what he says. He is certainly not the historical Denis Thatcher who would have spat out some of the remarks put in his mouth. He did not believe his wife was moved by ambition rather than duty (as he argues in one crucial scene) or that she was “always on [her] own” rather than a good wife and full family member (as he says in his final appearance). The real Denis Thatcher proudly told friends as early as the early 1960s -- a few years after his wife entered Parliament -- that she would be the first woman prime minister. He was inordinately proud and entirely supportive of her.
Denis in the movie is something rather different -- a spokesman for the confused paradox at its heart. It is an antifeminist film insofar as it depicts Margaret Thatcher as the prototypical career-woman neglectful of her family. It is a feminist film insofar as it shows her defeating the massed ranks of prejudiced Maledom to get to the top.
And that is a mystery in itself: how on earth did Margaret Thatcher get elected to the leadership of a Tory Party depicted here as composed entirely of male chauvinists. The various scenes in which the then Mrs. Thatcher battles, triumphs over, leads, and is eventually betrayed by an all-male three-piece-suited chorus line of Tories are almost balletic in character, beautifully composed, flawlessly filmed, and aching to be set to music. They have some claim to symbolic truth as a description of her relationship with the patrician Tory “wets” who provided the top leadership of the party for much of her time in politics.
But these scenes are absurdly false as a portrayal of rank-and-file Tories (who, among other things, are socially much more normal and much less well-dressed than depicted here) and of her rapport with them. Mrs. Thatcher was the Tory leader most comfortable with her grassroots party since Bonar Law (d. 1923). She was elected Tory leader almost entirely with male votes -- but mostly backbencher votes. Her victory was described at the time as “a Peasants’ Revolt.” (We know the exact total of the male chauvinist vote in that election; it was the number of MPs who voted for the other right-winger standing against Ted Heath, an aristocratic Hugh Fraser. They added up to exactly 15 Tory MPs from nearly 300). But she soon established herself as the darling of the whole party. All of which means that if Denis Thatcher, a self-confessed Home Counties Tory, had been an unmarried MP at the time, he would have voted for her too.
Greek Chorus

So if “Denis” is not Denis, 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.

That must be so in some sense, of course. But the defective sense in which it is true here is that this ventriloquist’s dummy is also a judgmental Greek Chorus. He is the truth-teller who gives us the psychological reality of Margaret Thatcher that explains her politics, her rise, and eventually her fall in the wider political world.
Ah yes, politics. At first glance the politics described by the film looks like a kaleidoscopic jumble -- the struggle against inflation, the Falklands War, the miners' strike, the end of the Cold War -- each conveyed in a few phrases, some footage of rioting and fighting, a handful of bold declaratory sentences by our heroine, and then onto the next item. The Cold War is compressed into Thatcher dancing with Reagan, the Berlin Wall coming down, the Paris conference that formally ended the Cold War (and that received the news of her failure to be re-elected Tory leader.) Her opposition to the euro is alluded to in a single sentence (perhaps added very recently.) The 1974 Tory crisis is pictorially represented by dramatic scenes of rubbish piling up that really relate to the 1979 “winter of discontent” under Labor.
To some extent this compression is a cinematic necessity. But the result is that we get very little context that would explain the reasons for these various conflicts -- nothing about the revived Soviet threat of the mid-to-late 1970s, nothing about the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, mounting an explicitly political challenge to the government, nothing about the erosion of national sovereignty within the European Union. This is a film about politics without politics.
This absence of political context, however, has consequences. Since we get little or no explanation of each of these various conflicts (with the exception of the Falklands War), they end up united by one common theme: namely, the nature of Thatcher herself and her “divisive” leadership. Accordingly , the one political aspect of the Thatcher years that gets repeated attention is her struggles with her Cabinet colleagues. That becomes by default the movie’s sub-text: Margaret Thatcher is “a battler” who has “battled all her life.” Others might listen, learn, sympathize, compromise, but she bulldozes through and over these lesser mortals.
She battles her way through all the conflicts, accompanied by her tap-dancing Cabinet, first as sullen plotters, then as reluctant warriors counseling inaction, then as toadying sycophants overwhelmed by her successes, then as sullen plotters again who realize that, over the Poll Tax and Europe, she has finally Gone Too Far and can be safely brought down.
Some admirers of Lady Thatcher see this account as a sympathetic portrayal. Sympathetic is, alas, the right word. Its argument -- to borrow a gag from “1066 And All That” -- is that Thatcher was Wrong but Wromantic. Her bravery and determination were admirable but her policies divided people and their costs were too high. Her career was magnificent in its bravura way, but was it really necessary? Did Britain pay too high a price? Did her family pay too high a price? Did she herself pay too high a price?
No! No! No! is an appropriately Thatcherite answer to those last three questions. But don’t let the questions deter you from seeing the movie. Considered coolly, this is a sentimental story about an elder stateswoman reliving her life in sadder but wiser mood. But it is a riveting story, well-researched, beautifully written, directed with style, and elevated by a superb performance of uncanny accuracy from Meryl Streep. This portrayal not only goes beyond brilliant impersonation; it also triumphs over the film’s underlying sub-text.
The sight of Streep as Mrs. Thatcher in her prime dragging a lot of timid men along her wake -- as if they were slaves in a Roman triumph -- is a truth that sweeps away all the omissions, sub-texts, and skeptical questions scattered along the way. She was not “always on [her] own,” as “Denis” says; but she was always in the lead.
John O'Sullivan was an adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and, until recently, the executive editor of RFERL. His book, "The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister," has been published in seven languages. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.
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