Review: The Iron Lady

The bestowed title of the Iron Lady was not always meant to flatter Lady Thatcher, but I’m sure it never intended sarcasm

Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher in 'The Iron Lady'
Benjamin Harris-Quinney
On 9 January 2012 16:19

The film The Iron Lady presents Thatcher in her senior years as weak, bewildered, reticent and uncertain, far from the tower of obstinate strength that earned her moniker from the soviets.

The film pivots from a lonely and aged Thatcher looking back on her life with confusion and some shaking uncertainty and upset. The narrative progression works reasonably well in moving through the key points of the Lady’s career, if often in scant detail.  A highlight is the interplay between Streep’s Thatcher, Richard E Grant as a preening Heseltine and Anthony Head as a doddery, attentive but blunt Geoffrey Howe.

But there isn’t enough of it to truly draw in the student of politics and one needs to hold a reasonable knowledge of political history to fill in the gaps of the film as it skips at great pace from Finchley, to the Commons and in and out of Downing Street without any real study into the why of what was happening.

Great care has clearly been taken in mimicking Lady Thatcher’s appearance and mannerism, and at times Meryl Streep could be confused for the elder Lady herself. But the failing of the film is that in character her more senior incarnation isn’t Lady Thatcher, even at 85. The real Lady is certain, direct and far from reticent. She may have moments of forgetfulness, but not to forget herself.

This warping of the reality of a person who is still living, who still has a voice, is unusual, slightly absurd, and early in the film I began to dread that it would be more unkind to her life’s work in conclusion. Surprisingly the Lady remains the hero of the piece, a saviour of her nation, and a study in triumph over adversity. 

The most touching element of the film is the relationship between Margaret and Dennis, played (in his later years) by a consistently brilliant Jim Broadbent. Indeed what the film does reflect remarkably well is the warmth and maternal love that she has for her family, her loved ones and her country. There is even faint evidence of her unique, dry sense of humour.

I recall a recent meeting with the Lady in which she expressed concern that the giver of a gift of modern art designed to represent freedom had “been had”. She later asked me if I could take it with me on my way out.

In fact, a meeting with the Lady usually only leaves one bewildered and uncertain person in the room, and it is the person meeting her. There is no other politician who brings emotion, laughter, tears or inspiration like Lady Thatcher, and whether at 55 or 85, she is great in the most original sense of the word.

The film is emotional, well made, well cast, and well acted, but probably more relevant to an interpersonal study of dementia, than to the Iron Lady herself.  There is so much to say of her, and so it is rather a shame that the lens used to say it is so blurred by the false depiction of the Lady in senior life. For many, particularly those unable to remember her, this film will form a significant part of the wide perception of her life and character.

Lady Thatcher once said of her national memorial that “I don’t want a parade, I am not Winston”. But there is only one politician for whom not being Winston Churchill is an advantage, and it is Margaret Thatcher. That life deserves a truly accurate, truly great memorial; whilst a good film, this is not it.  

Benjamin Harris-Quinney is the Chairman of the Bow Group. He tweets at @B_HQ

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