‘The Iron Lady’ and the Iron Lady I knew
The Iron Lady is a cruel film: brutally unsparing in its depiction of the hazards of old age. I was ready to be angry and to believe that, like jackals, Hollywood lefties were closing in on an aged lioness, safe in the cowardice of assailing the vulnerable, overlooking in their sniggerings the obvious point. In her prime, one roar, and they would all have fled in terror.
Those suspicions were unjustified, for this is cruelty in the pursuit of art. The outcome is cinematographic power. It is a work of force and pathos. For most of the time, I was enthralled; at moments, moved to the verge of tears. The principal actress is outstanding. Admittedly, Meryl Streep sometimes sounds like a parody of Margaret Thatcher. So, quite often, did Margaret Thatcher. As a great actress should, Miss Streep has insinuated herself into her role. Her Margaret Thatcher is a heroine. That is an accurate assessment.
The film has faults. About 60 per cent of the way through, it loses its thread. For whatever reason, everything goes awry, like the passages in Turandot written after Puccini’s death. There is too much dementia. I am asured by those who see Lady Thatcher regularly that she is not nearly that bad, which is not the point. In their inadequacy, those sections diminish the film. But, like Turandot, it recovers before the end.
As for the other characters, Geoffrey Howe’s voice is uncannily good. The actor conveys a blend of diffidence and steel, of Aristotle and Winnie the Pooh: just like Geoffrey. Michael Heseltine is a failure. He comes across as a sharp but shallow account exec at a smart advertising agency. There is none of Hezza’s leonine presence and menace: nothing to explain why he was able to slay the Lioness.
But the real weakness is Denis Thatcher. If anything, the young Denis is excessively suave. Indeed, he comes across as a bit of a wimp. His falling in love with Margaret is pure schmaltz. But the old Denis is portrayed as a shallow vulgarian, like a retired commercial traveller in rubber goods. That Denis would never have been married to Margaret Thatcher.
Denis Thatcher is a difficult man to capture. He belonged to a social milieu that few commentators understand: the Home Counties upper-middle class with no tincture of metropolitan culture. He was not so much anti-intellectual as an-intellectual. But he had an English depth and a moral depth, plus a good brain when he needed to use it. Denis was a proper person. He always got on well with Prince Philip, and no wonder. Neither man was put on earth to walk three paces behind his wife.
Inaccurately and unconvincingly, as the couple approach marriage, the film has Denis and Margaret negotiating a political pre-nup. She insists that she is not prepared to renounce politics for dish-washing. The young Denis rushes to agree. I suspect that the truth would have been as follows (Denis speaking). ‘When I married the little woman, I knew she’d been interested in politics, but I didn’t take that seriously. She’d never had any money and I’d sort that out. She could have a dressmaker and a decent hairdresser: sort of thing girls enjoy. I’d put her in the club, so there’d be sprogs to bring up. In the long fullness, if she wanted to be the chairman of the local Tory advisory women’s whatnot, no harm in that. But if someone had said to me: “Thatcher, forget local Tory female thingummy — that little woman of yours is going to be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, I might have scratched the fixture. I’m glad I didn’t.’ Everyone who loves this country should concur. Denis was the most important figure in the real supporting cast.
In The Iron Lady, the Thatcher premiership is a rapid succession of riots and wars. The impression is given that the male politicians found this all too exhausting, which is why she eventually fell. That is not a bad epitome of truth, even if it does ignore the longueurs and the compromises. Like war, politics is a combination of long periods of inactivity followed by outbreaks of unmitigated freneticism. By the end, there had been too much freneticism. Many of Mrs Thatcher’s own supporters were losing her taste for constant conflict. She wore people out.
Almost all of those people were men. But even when it has her pinning the males to the wall, the film resists the temptation to turn her career into a feminist insurrection, and rightly so. She did not believe in the sex war. She did enjoy the things that girls enjoy. But male politicians in off-duty moments will chat about cricket or rugger or shooting. That does not stop them reverting to seriousness when duty calls. Nor did Lady Thatcher’s femininity. Indeed, she was much more intense than almost every male minister. When most Cabinet ministers hold a meeting, there are changes of pace. Once the bulk of the business has been transacted and the winning post is in view, there is time for a story and a laugh. Never with Margaret Thatcher. In her case, intensity was heaped on intensity. If someone had tried to lighten the occasion with a joke, she would not have understood what was happening and would have responded with a mixture of bewilderment and hostility: especially hostility.
Apropos of hostility, Margaret Thatcher has always been a problem for the feminists, because they refuse to acknowledge her contribution. Back in 1975, there were still a lot of men in senior positions who expressed views which Denis Thatcher was used to hearing at the golf club. ‘There’s no point in employing girls. Everyone knows that they’re no use for one week in four and if they were in the office, they’d distract the young men. We wouldn’t get any work out of them either. And if the girl did turn out to be some good, what’s the point? She’d only go off and have babies. It’s all a waste of time.’
Eighteen months later, exactly those sort of chaps insisted that Maggie was the best man we had. I suspect that this assisted a lot of girls who were seeking careers in the City or the law. ‘The influence of Margaret Thatcher in expanding female career options’: I suspect that they are not writing PhDs on that in the average department of gender studies. Perhaps this film will encourage them.
I cannot see why anyone would fail to enjoy The Iron Lady. Even while it is bleakly reminding us that old age is not for cissies, it is moving and inspiring. Just like the Lady herself.