A review of The Iron Lady

Why it took National Lottery funds to make this movie and what Americans make of the opening credit are questions I cannot answer. And this is a very hard movie to review by somebody such as myself who has known her so long (since 1972 so 40 years) and was a free-marketeer well before she got into her full stride.

Indeed I dedicated my biography Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady to ‘all those who believed in free markets and private property rights under the law before 1975. There were not many and we know who we are.’

In 1972 there were not many of us anywhere who advocated monetarism, privatisation, contracting out, keeping the EEC at arms length, cutting spending and taxes, bringing the unions under the rule of law and so on.

The structure of the movie is very simple. Meryl Streep aged say 60-ish plays Lady T today aged 86 as a widow of some eight years who still talks to her husband and refuses to pack up his clothes and golf clubs for a charity shop.

I would guess close to half the movie portrays Lady T as this quite old lady with significant memory issues.

The other half (plus) is a series of flashbacks to the young Margaret from age say 16 to 33 brilliantly played by Alexandra Roach and to the established Margaret aged say 45 to 65, again brilliantly played by Streep.

Most of the casting is superb. Carol is played to a fault by Olivia Colman and the likes of Nott, Prior, Heseltine need no introduction – you just know who they are. I have not checked but I sense that even their ties are correct.

Unfortunately Jim Broadbent does not quite do Denis justice, not helped by the fact that he looks half a foot taller and 70 lbs heavier. The young Denis played by Harry Lloyd is much more on the ball.

The Iron Lady must win another Oscar for Streep in addition to the Golden Globe Award. Her performance is beyond anything I have ever witnessed. It is uncanny as she gets under the skin and becomes Lady T.

A few words on detail: there are errors galore and I doubt biographer John Campbell (credited as consultant) had much input.

There’s a scene from early 1974 when MT is still Education Secretary with piles of trash all over Westminster. Surely that was the Winter of Discontent, as in early 1979.

In scene after scene she sits while all around folk stand. Nonsense! To sit while all others stand is a sin in the Thatcher credo. Aged 83 I heard her say ‘if everybody else is standing I’m certainly not going to sit down.’ Lack of moral fibre in her view.

Her staff in the movie calls her ‘Margaret’ or ‘Lady Thatcher’ or even both when in reality they all uniformly say ‘Lady T’.

The food at the dinner she hosts is not right. She would have served vichysoisse, grilled dover sole off the bone and vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce.

And the opening scene is farcical. She evades her security to go to a corner shop to buy a pint of milk.  Laughable. And in any case there are no corner shops where she lives.

There were times when I could not (on just one viewing) figure out if the script writers had made a mistake or if they were trying to portray MT’s confusion.

Take Mark. His wife was Diane and some years back they lived in RSA. Then Mark copped a plea and she left with the kids for the USA where he can no longer visit. Yet there are references to Sarah (I think) in RSA with Mark and kids. Maybe I know too much or I’m slow or the script is wrong. I have no idea.

The constant moving back and forward between the 86 year-old Lady T and the say 45 to 65 year-old at her peak could be depressing and is frankly overdone. The budget was by the way kept low by the use of TV archive material which adds realism and is not thankfully overdone

However the scenes of Lady T with memory issues are saved by her occasionally lucid moments when Margaret at her best emerges. When Carol forces Margaret to go for a check-up a month early the great lady is seriously peeved. As she ends her visit clearly lying to her doctor about her mental health his phone rings. He ignores it. About the third ring she grates out words to the effect that he should pick up on the call because somebody might actually need his help. Classic Thatcher. Whoever wrote that scene knew what they were doing! It was one of many times that the audience in my Naples, FL movie house laughed in total accord with the 86 year-old – but it was the biggest laugh.

All of the above leaves us two big questions:

  • Should the movie have been made while Lady T was still alive? and
  • How is her reputation impacted?

The first is hard. The argument against is that if she has Alzheimer’s then she cannot fight back; and if not then it is a lie. Given what Carol has said about Mum and given that the Lady T operation closed down last summer we know, without revealing any personal experiences, what the situation is.

I tend to disagree with the Tim Bells and the David Camerons on this matter.

Once you enter public life the law changes. Literally the law about what you can say and what can be said about you is different once you achieve public office even for some local councillor, let alone a PM who served for eleven and a half years.

She put herself out there and once you do that the game changes. On reflection I have no issues.

So what about Lady T’s reputation?

I approached this thinking there are five possibilities:

  1. Hollywood totally nukes her;
  2. Hollywood hits her hard;
  3. Hollywood is neutral;
  4. Hollywood gives her reputation a good boost; and
  5. Hollywood beatifies her.

I am pleased to report that it is number 4 as I’m sure this movie enhances her reputation and educates a new generation in what a fantastic individual she was.

Exactly the way I saw it. Nice review, Mr Blundell, and thanks for your expert insight into the licence taken in the film, especially the bin bags piling up too early. That was particularly confusing when I watched it, glad you settled my memories of the time.
Thanks, John, for a very thoughtful review. As a large proportion of the population lives much longer than in earlier times, my impression is that public attitudes to mental difficulties among the aged has changed a good deal in the last few years. So I doubt if audiences will regard the film's treatment of Lady Thatcher as hostile or demeaning. (John might prefer 'Lady T' -- though I'm inclined to refer to her as 'Thatcher', in the same way that one simply refers to 'Churchill'.)
Thanks for the informed review, John. I was going to give this movie a miss, on rumors that it did not do Lady T justice. But if you, knowing her for 40 years, give it a thumbs up, then I'll get myself a ticket, because, after alll, you should know.

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