The Iron Lady (UK-France, 2011)

Doesn't she make you want to vomit

Nothing was going to get to me to see this film because Thatcher is one of the few people I’ve truly hated in my life (I still do). However, it dawned on me that as I’m teaching a topic called ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ (Mona Lisa, 1986, and Riff Raff, 1991) I needed to go. My reluctance was reinforced by reports that the film didn’t deal with her politics: a striking omission. It turned out I needn’t have seen it, the film tells us nothing about ‘her’ Britain, but I was bowled over . . .

. . . by Meryl Streep, who out-Streeps herself with a performance for which I do not have the superlatives. That didn’t surprise me, but I do think this is an extremely good film despite not dealing with the politics in any detail. Anyone who is not familiar with the evils of Thatcher’s Britain will not get much of an inkling of how divisive she was; although we seemed to heading for a similarly fractured society under Cameron’s coalition. The film is actually about dementia and it’s logical to choose a person who was one of the most powerful in the world for dramatic effect. Using a fairly standard biopic device of looking back, the film picks out key moments from her life (and history) but it’s focus, unlike many such films, is on the present and not the past.

The early years Thatcher, superbly played by Alexandra Roach, did enlighten me in its portrayal of the hideous patriarchy of the Tory party. Clearly, to get beyond that prejudice required an enormous degree of determination and if she ever had the ability to consider others, then it was probably squeezed out of her at this time.

Then there’s Streep who (almost) makes human in inhumane. She has been admired as a fine actor for many years. Much used to made of her ability with accents (Out of Africa‘s Danish for example) but that didn’t prepare me for her ability to portray the fiend of the ’80s. Whether it’s the politician about to topple Heath, or the eightysomething fragile old woman, Streep embodies Thatcher perfectly.

This is looking like another box office triumph for the UK Film Council backed film; the quango stupidly abolished by the Tories on entering office.



  1. Rona

    Agreed on all fronts. Abi Morgan does write some fantastic roles for women – although the BBC series The Hour about a newsroom in the 1950s had some weak moments, the central character of Bel Mooney (played with strength and wit by Romola Garai) carried the narrative in a totally convincing way. I watched Sex Traffic again recently (British Channel 4) and that really is a classic television series, powerful drama given enough time to weave real people out of the characters.

    I wonder whether Abi Morgan, the writer, recoiled from writing a mainstream film with the exploration of the politics – to avoid the accusation of a leftist bias from the right-wing press and all the problems of commercial release etc that would also circulate around it. I’ve heard Meryl Streep (who is extraordinary in it) talk about it as “King Lear for girls” and its exploration of what might happen when you’ve held that kind of power and are now marginalised and failing in body and mind does effectively engage you in the human story beneath. But, really, for those of us who live in a country still dealing with the divisive and devastating effects of that administration – how can you not do the politics? Perhaps their film could enter the debate that is still being had (in the way that something like This is England managed so brilliantly) in a meaningful way as part of British culture? Anyway, makes you wonder what they’d make of Tony Blair.

  2. Roy Stafford

    Is your picture caption what you intended? I think Thatcher was guilty of many things but wanting her opponents to vomit seems a bit extreme. I think you (and Rona) have done me a favour in going to see this thing and allowing me to give it a miss. I share your visceral response to the memory of those terrible years. I think you make a good point in querying what she had to put up with in her fight against the patriarchy of the Tory party and how it might have affected her later behaviour but I wouldn’t wish to dementia onto anyone and whatever we think about what she did, it’s sad to see a bright and intelligent woman unable to function as once did. I would far rather she had been confronted with the pain that she caused and given the chance to at least own up for it.

    It seems a long time since we have had any kind of drama that deals with political discourse in British culture – it is usually wrapped up in another genre form. Rona, you are probably right that we should have something on Blair but I don’t think I could stand that either. I’m glad he’s camped out in his favourite restaurant in Jerusalem (though I think that the Israelis and Palestinians are likely to be fed up with him by now).

    One last point on the UK Film Council. I think that the way in which the Tories closed it down – seemingly without any real consideration of what it did – was the problem. Some of the best bits of what it did are now being carried out by the BFI and we probably need to wait a little longer before we make a judgement on what might have been lost by the closure.

  3. keith1942

    I was impressed with Meryl Streep, but less so with the film. It really is a serious problem that it fails to deal with the politics. But I was also unimpressed with the form and style: the portrait [as Rona suggests] is interesting, but it is very repetitive. I got really irritated with the Derek constantly popping up.

    There are two great scenes in the film – Brighton, of course: and Neave leaving the underground car park for an unexpected destination.

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