the iron lady: not the war horse she’s cracked up to be

David Broder went to see The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep starring as Margaret Thatcher

After the adverts for the merits of cinema advertising, and the adverts for the cinema itself, came a trailer for War Horse. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, this is a film about a horse from a humble farm who is deployed for use in World War I, runs around a lot through battlefields as carnage rages all around him, and ultimately saves the day and warms all our hearts. This plot is more-or-less identical to about half of The Iron Lady, although seeing Maggie Thatcher rise from grocer’s daughter to Prime Minister and obstinately press ahead with austerity as rioting and mass unemployment wreak havoc on all around her… it’s just not as uplifting

Indeed, the message of The Iron Lady is rather curious. Structured as a series of flashbacks by the now seriously mentally ill Baroness Thatcher,  she repeatedly recalls people giving her saccharine nuggets of advice: ‘Be yourself’, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what to do’, ‘You can achieve anything’, and so on. Thatcher’s children Mark and Carol apparently considered the film a ‘Left-wing fantasy’; while they are wrong insofar as the film portrays its hero largely sympathetically, it is nonetheless a sort of liberal mystification of who Thatcher was: her fight against class and gender prejudice is pushed to the fore, and through her determination she manages to overcome these barriers and thus forces the establishment to accept her.

The most obvious reason why this portrayal of her idealism rings hollow is that she was not at all a fighter for people of her background or gender, most of whom did not have a similar experience of the 1980s. Her legacy of mass unemployment, the destruction of working-class communities, and austerity clearly heaped far more burden onto most working-class women: hence the protests by former miners and miners’ wives which greeted the film’s appearance. Moreover, this itself points to the sham of today’s liberal inclusiveness: the mere fact that individuals can transcend their class background and be included in the establishment does not stop class from existing. This is not to deny that Thatcher did provide opportunity for some limited number of working-class people: divide-and-rule, a tactic as old as colonialism.

But there is a further problem, more damaging to the fate of this film. It constantly venerates her sense of purpose and determination, her sureness in her principles. In a conversation with her doctor, when he asks how she feels, she complains that people always talk about their inner feelings, not about what they think, or what action is necessary. In contrast to such behaviour, she wears her politics on her sleeve. So the film makes a strange kind of tribute to Thatcher: how can you champion someone’s sureness that their principles are right and indeed necessary, regardless of any judgement on whether they are indeed correct? If a politician takes their beliefs seriously, surely they would want others to take them seriously too, rather than merely celebrate the fact that these beliefs exist?

While I am not suggesting that the film ought to have included some Ken Loach-style set-piece debate of Thatcher’s legacy, this contradiction does mean that The Iron Lady fails in its attempt to arouse admiration, or even interest, in its hero. While didactic political films often come off poorly, series such as A Very British Coup or The House of Cards do at least explore the interaction between personality and raw power. The Iron Lady lacks any sense of power, particularly due to its structure: the memories of a Baroness Thatcher now struck by dementia. So there is little tragedy, here: her hallucinations of her long-dead husband are as dull as what they are (the rather sad longing of an ill old woman), and moreover, since this fate is not self-imposed, it doesn’t really succeed in counter-balancing her hubris in her years in power.

Thus half of The Iron Lady asks us to admire Thatcher simply because of her firm beliefs (no matter what those principles were) and determination in action, and yet the other half suggests we should pity her as just another mentally-ill old lady, who we ought to feel sorry for no matter what she did and believed, simply because she has dementia… If you will excuse the unintended hyperbole of the comparison, a film about hubris like Downfall (with Hitler raving as his empire collapses around him) is far more successful because it doesn’t invite us to valorise his courage in his convictions, but rather, shows how his beliefs interact with the consequences of his actions.

Truth be told, despite my avid interest even in Westminster politics, and although Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher is certainly very believable, I actually found the film quite boring, and the scenes of the dementia-struck Thatcher pottering around are tiresome and overlong. For an inspiring tale of obstinate courage against all odds, I suggest you instead go and see War Horse. This is particularly the case if you have kids, since The Iron Lady is a 12a, and is thus unsuitable for miners (sorry.)

One thought on “the iron lady: not the war horse she’s cracked up to be

  1. David
    Problem also that Hollywood just could not show what Thatcher really represented – the political expression of finance capital. Before her Heath and Wilson/Callaghan tried to control the industrial working class, as Thatcher and her somewhat crazy henchmen had no attachment to industrial capital they just got rid of much of it. As Bob Sutcliffe pointed out at the time most industry in Britain apart from North Sea oil made almost no money anyway.


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