Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is outstanding and brilliant. As is Alexandra Roach as the young Margaret Roberts. However, the screenwriter, Abby Morgan, and director, Phyllida Lloyd (best known for Mama Mia), present such a fractured and fragmentary presentation in The Iron Lady, that it fails to do justice to the dynamic life and momentous achievements of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Why Focus on Frailty?
Why the filmmakers decided to take the first female prime minister in Europe, whose career was the embodiment of decisiveness and political power, and then to portray her from the twisted perspective of geriatric feebleness, is a question that must be asked.
Choosing Fiction Over Fact
We do realise that most of us grow old and have to handle grief, loss of a marriage partner, medical challenges and all the processes of aging. But why devote virtually half the film to that? The life and political career of Margaret Thatcher are so extraordinary and packed full of drama, confrontation and extraordinary resolution. It is simply incomprehensible that filmmakers would throw away so much great material to delve into what obviously must be imaginative fiction on what Margaret Thatcher may be thinking, or saying, to herself in old age.
Citizen Kane Strikes Again
In many ways it would seem that the filmmakers have chosen to copy Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane, of 1941. Wells slightly fictionalised the life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst with a fractured focus on a demented, senile Kane, alone and lamenting his lost power, in the remote castle of Xanadu.
The Greatest English Leader Alive
However, Lady Margaret Thatcher is the most famous and accomplished Englishwoman alive. Her prime ministership was controversial and dealt with so many extraordinary conflicts that the film failed to give much attention to.
Ignoring the Context
The Iron Lady does have sparks of life whenever it touches on the actual historical experiences and achievements of Margaret Thatcher. However, these are frustratingly few, fleeting and far-between. The IRA bombing of her hotel room at the Conservative Party Congress in Brighton, the miners strike, the Falklands War, are touched on. But nothing is dealt with in any detail, nor analysed, nor illuminated in any way. The tumultuous political and historical forces at work are mostly ignored.
Missing the Main Message
Instead of focusing on Margaret Thatcher in her political prime as party leader, Prime Minister of Great Britain and world stateswoman, The Iron Lady persists in spending an exhaustive amount of the film on pathetic scenes of dementia, hallucinations and other hypothetical fiction which the film makers seem to prefer to the reality of what Margaret Thatcher actually faced and achieved in recent history.
Instead of dealing with Margaret Thatcher and letting us know something more about her, and what made her such an incredible leader, at such a critical time in history, the scriptwriter seems determined to give us much of the same standard Hollywood fare, including images which seem inspired from The King’s Speech voice coaching and Shakespeare's King Lear dealing with dementia. There are also several scenes which seem to come straight from Meryl Streep’s superb performance in The Devil Wears Prada.
Reversing the Irreversible Decline
To better appreciate Margaret Thatcher and what she achieved, one needs to understand the context into which she became Prime Minister of Great Britain. One could be forgiven for getting the impression from this film that Britain’s financial problems started with her premiership. Actually, the Conservative Party, and the voters, entrusted the Prime Ministership to Margaret Thatcher because she offered a bold plan to reverse the United Kingdom’s economic decline and to reduce the role of the state in the economy.
Early in her premiership, Margaret Thatcher demonstrated her determination to use decisive military action during the 1980 siege of the Iranian Embassy in Princes Gate, London. For the first time in 70 years the armed forces were authorised to use lethal force on the British mainland. 26 hostages were being held by 6 gunmen. When Thatcher authorised the Special Air Service to storm the Embassy, it was a time when many embassies were being held, including most famously, the American embassy in Tehran. Margaret Thatcher took bold action which no other government in the West appeared to have the nerve to carry out.
Lady Thatcher also had to deal with the ongoing IRA terrorism which increasingly targeted the British mainland. Margaret Thatcher declared in the House of Commons: "The future of the constitutional affairs of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, this government, this parliament, and no one else." When IRA terrorists, imprisoned in Northern Ireland, went on a hunger strike to regain the status of political prisoners, Thatcher refused to budge. She declared: "Crime is crime is crime; it is not political." She faced a firestorm of opposition as nine of the IRA hunger strikers died. However, Thatcher’s resolute determination made the outcome a significant political defeat for the IRA.
The Falklands War
With over two decades of withdrawals and retreats from Empire, handing over one overseas territory after another for independence, many assumed that the British were past having the military capability, or determination, to resist aggression. When the ruling military junta in Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, 2 April 1982, the world was amazed when Prime Minister Thatcher despatched a naval taskforce to recapture the British overseas territories. As Newsweek declared: The Empire Strikes Back! Margaret Thatcher made Britain’s position clear by sinking the Argentinian battleship Belgrado, and launching an amphibious and ground combat operation which recaptured the islands from the Argentinian military. This military achievement, at the other end of the globe, sent shockwaves throughout the Soviet block, alerting them that the West was not quite as decadent and weak as they had imagined.
When on 12 October 1984, Margaret Thatcher escaped injury in the Brighton Hotel bombing, during the Conservative Party Conference, she insisted that the conference be opened on time. The next day she made her speech as planned, in defiance of the terrorists.
Freedom on the Offensive
Throughout the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher supported United States President Ronald Reagan’s policy of putting freedom on the offensive, directly supporting anti-communist movements in the Soviet Empire and refusing to provide any more financial loans to the Soviets and their satellites. Margaret Thatcher’s success in reviving the British economy also helped demonstrate that capitalism had a future, even while communism was bankrupting the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
The Failure of Communism
The Iron Lady declared: "The Berlin Wall stands as concrete proof that when people have a choice, they choose to be free… Freedom has its problems – but we’ve never needed to build walls to keep our people in!" Concerning socialism Margaret Thatcher declared: "The problem with socialism is that sooner or later they run out of other peoples money."
Winning the Cold War
Margaret Thatcher was arguably Britain’s greatest Prime Minister in the 20th century. Her role in enabling the West to defeat the Soviet Union and win the Cold War was decisive.
The Triumph of the Free Market
Despite widespread riots, strikes, and other agitation mobilised by the communist international and socialists throughout Britain, Margaret Thatcher continued to reduce state intervention, selling off nationalised industries such as British Telcom. Under Margaret Thatcher, inflation in Britain fell dramatically as did unemployment and the British Pound strengthened impressively.
Standing for British Sovereignty
Margaret Thatcher is also renowned for resisting all pressures to integrate Britain into the European Union. She resisted pressures to abolish the Pound and bring Britain into the Euro common currency. From the start she asserted British sovereignty and opposed EU encroachment. At the Dublin European Council in November 1979, she pointed out that the UK paid far more to the EEC than it received back in services or spending. "We are not asking the community, or anyone else, for money. We are simply asking to have our own money back." At the 1984 Fontainebleau Summit, the EEC agreed on an annual rebate for the UK amounting to 66%.
Opposition to Centralisation
At Bruges, Belgium, in 1988, Margaret Thatcher made a powerful speech in which she outlined her opposition to proposals from the European Community for a federal structure. She asserted that the EEC should be limited to promoting free trade and effective competition. She opposed any centralisation which eroded the sovereignty of Great Britain. She succeeded in keeping Britain out of the Euro zone.
Trade not Sanctions
Margaret Thatcher was also the leading international advocate of constructive engagement with South Africa during the 1980s. She was the most forthright opponent of economic sanctions against South Africa. She argued that a prosperous society would be more receptive to change. Thatcher rejected the ANC as a typical terrorist organisation. However, she did recommend that President F.W. de Klerk’s government release Mandela from prison. Nelson Mandela spoke with respect of Margaret Thatcher and declared that he would have like her to be "the very first person I would see on release from prison."
There are so many other remarkable achievements of Margaret Thatcher against unprecedented opposition. Unfortunately, though, filmgoers will barely get a hint of these from this convoluted and misdirected film. Meryl Streep’s extraordinary performance deserves a better film. Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s extraordinary life deserves a far better film treatment.
Facts in Print
Margaret Thatcher’s biography, The Downing Street Years (London, Harper Collins, 1993) will provide insights which The Iron Lady film lacks.
Personal Debt of Gratitude
As it so happens, I have a personal reason to be grateful to the Iron Lady. In October 1987, when I and three other Frontline missionaries were prisoners in Zambia, Margaret Thatcher personally spoke up for us and secured our release.
The Frontline Mission team I was leading had been arrested at Kazangulu, after refusing to bribe Zambian officials. We spent excruciating weeks of abuse at the hands of Zambian security forces, in filthy cells, blindfolded, handcuffed, interrogated and incarcerated in the overcrowded Lusaka Central Prison.
Friends of ours ensured that the British Prime Minister was informed of our plight just before her departure for the Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver.
Confrontation with Kaunda
There Margaret Thatcher was subjected to haranguing by Zambian dictator, Kenneth Kaunda, who was outraged that Britain was refusing to place economic sanctions on South Africa. Margaret Thatcher responded by asking why Zambia did not herself place sanctions on South Africa? Kaunda responded that, that would place many people out of work. Exactly, responded the British Prime Minister, and as South Africa is one of our most important trading partners, many British citizens would be placed out of work if I were to impose sanctions on South Africa. Quite aside from the many South Africans themselves who would be placed out of work.
She then went on to relate how Zambians were dependent on South African maize grown in the Orange Free State, how the Zambian Airways was maintained by South African Airways, how the Zambian Railways was maintained by South African Railways, how South African veterinaries cared for Zambia’s cattle, and how many Zambians were migrant workers in South Africa.
Kenneth Kaunda then declared that because of South Africa’s human rights abuses, Britain should impose sanctions. It was at this point that Margaret Thatcher produced our information. Who are you to speak about human rights abuses? she challenged Kaunda. Four British missionaries are being held without trial as presidential detainees in Lusaka Central Prison, tortured and abused by your own security forces! Kaunda was dumbstruck and humiliated. He ordered our immediate release.
Respect for a Great Leader
I am only one of many people who have a debt of gratitude to Baroness Margaret Thatcher. She deserves our gratitude and respect. She deserves far better than this shameful failure of a film.
Dr. Peter Hammond
P O Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa