Margaret Thatcher’s dramatic life has the makings of a great movie. The Iron Lady isn’t it. Somewhere between a third and half of the movie ignores her career and portrays her as a hallucinating old woman trying to justify herself to her dead husband. It’s insulting to a still living woman and a way for director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan to sneak in a shockingly anti-feminist critique of Thatcher. It’s unforgivable that they twisted events, as Virginia Postrel observed:
We see Thatcher giving her teenage daughter, Carol, a driving lesson. They have a wild time on the road. Thatcher grabs the steering wheel, forcing the car to swerve right (get it?) to avoid an oncoming driver who is dangerously straddling the center line. Mother and daughter come into the house laughing. But this happy bonding quickly breaks down when Margaret announces her intention to run for Conservative Party leader.“I thought I was having a driving lesson, but it was all about my mother!” yells Carol, storming out of the room.
Denis, still alive in this flashback, then reminds his wife that he’s told her that “business is a bit rocky and the doctor says I need a rest.” Insensitive to his problems, she prattles on about running for party leader. “You’re insufferable, Margaret,” he says. “You know that?”
When she responds with talk of duty and public service, he snaps, “Don’t call it duty! It’s ambition that’s got you this far — ambition! The rest of us — me, the children, we can all go to hell! Don’t worry about me,” he concludes, with a mixture of resignation and sarcasm, “I’ll be fine.”
Recalling the scene, the phantom Denis asks how many days it took her to realize he’d gone to South Africa. “When did I lose track of everyone?” she muses.
And here comes the moral: “You were too busy climbing the greasy pole.”
No wonder she wound up lonely and demented. The Iron Lady was just out for herself, a self-centered rat who missed the important things in life. At least that’s what a viewer who knew only the movie might suppose.
This crucial scene is worse than fabricated. It twists real events to make its moralistic point.
In the real world, Denis Thatcher, who was something of a workaholic himself, did in fact take a sabbatical in South Africa and Switzerland — in 1964, a full decade before Margaret ran for party leader and for reasons that had little to do with his wife. On his return, he sold the family business to a larger company.
And Margaret Thatcher did indeed give her daughter driving lessons. After a professional instructor terrified Carol with a rush-hour trip through London’s busy Sloane Square, Margaret persuaded her daughter not to give up. “Thanks to her,” Carol Thatcher writes in her 2008 memoir “A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl,” “I eventually passed my test.” That, too, happened years before Thatcher ran for party leader. Her children, born in 1953, were adults during Thatcher’s years as head of the Conservative Party. Carol was in fact taking her law exams as the Tories were casting their party-leader votes — a nice bit of parallel tension that the movie skips.
Denis Thatcher was long his wife’s greatest cheerleader. As a young and nervous candidate, Mrs. Thatcher was once paralyzed on the stump until Denis started his friends cheering for her. For the rest of her career, Denis was always leading the cheering section (even at an American Enterprise Institute event years after she left active politics). Denis was the rare man who disproved Katherine Anne Porter’s assessment of men and marriage:
I know that when a woman loves a man, she builds him up and supports him. I never knew a man who loved a woman enough for this. He cannot help it, it is his deepest instinct to destroy, quite often subtly, insidiously, but constantly and endlessly, her very center of her being, her confidence in herself as a woman.
Lloyd and Morgan have shoehorned poor Denis Thatcher into this worldview that was wildly not his own. Disgraceful.
Here are some things that really should have been in the movie:
- Thatcher was a ferocious enemy of the Soviet Union, to the point where Pravda gave her the nickname “The Iron Lady.” Thatcher appropriated the intended smear and made it stick: it’s the title of the film. Why did they leave this out?
- Note that the above trailer closes with a scene that didn’t actually make the movie: Thatcher asking the men at a state dinner, “Gentleman, shall we join the ladies?” Particularly given the early scenes where young Margaret Roberts had to leave the room while the men talked, this is the sort of elementary contrast that needs to be in a film. Thatcher actually did say this, so leaving it out is yet another sign of incompetent film making.
- We see her take questions in Parliament, but only once as a junior minister and never as Prime Minister. She was consistently better prepared and regularly smashed the leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock. In the above clip, we see the actual Thatcher’s last time at Prime Minister’s questions. She had already been knifed in the back by her own party, and even here, she can roll with raucous and overcome her opposition. Prime Minister’s questions is one of the places where Thatcher shined: she loved it and excelled at it. When she was challenged abroad by a panel of Soviet politicians, she demonstrated that she knew more about the Soviet economy than they did. It would have been a wonderful contrast to see her as Prime Minister dominating where she had once floundered, and the film makers simply gloss over it.
- Thatcher is consistently portrayed as a headstrong and near reckless leader. But the real woman was often shrewd and cautious and perfectly willing to concede fights that she was not yet able to win. We never see Arthur Scargill, the Stalinist leader of the mining unions, but he was one of her chief antagonists. Shortly after she she became Prime Minister, he called a general strike and Thatcher more or less gave him everything he wanted because the government was in no position to break the strike. She carefully laid down stockpiles of coal—a three years supply of it!—so when he started another general strike later, she was able to break the miner’s union (The movie Billy Elliot uses this conflict as a backdrop). Thatcher took a long view, made a strategy, and overcame the most powerful man in Britain who wasn’t an MP.
- As a young woman, Thatcher was a research chemist who actually patented methods for preserving ice cream. We see her campaigning amongst ice cream workers, but the film makers missed an opportunity to show a woman coming full circle.
- The film makers show the IRA bombing of the conservative convention at Brighton, but they only show Thatcher’s initial and horrified reaction. Far more important, the next day she carried on with the speech she had been editing, which she delivered without changes. Thatcher made the point that we carry on despite terror. This was again lost.
The above are major points. Here are some minor things that would have been nice:
- Geoffrey Howe is seriously underdeveloped as a character. He was sometimes right, particularly in his Thatcher’s early days as her Chancellor of the Exchequer, and sometimes wrong, particularly on the single currency, and Thatcher did mistreat him, but we’re left with the impression that he’s just a squish, which he wasn’t. Given that his resignation eventually led to Thatcher’s own downfall, the audience needed some more development of his character. And by cutting away from the leadership race too soon, they leave the impression that the Tory Wet challenger Michael Heseltine won it, when it was actually won by John Major, another Tory Dry.
- Other key members of Thatcher’s cabinet in particular and British politics in general aren’t developed. Norman Tebbit, whose wife was crippled by the Brighton bombing, is nowhere to be seen, but he would have been excellent and colorful addition. Ted Heath needed to be built up more so we can see him as an antagonist better. Enoch Powell, her most formidable critic on the right (just as Barry Goldwater paved the way for Ronald Reagan, so did Powell cut the trail for Thatcher) should have had some lines—even if only his cutting remark about her principles, “A pity she doesn’t understand them!” Neil Kinnock, leader of the opposition, also needed some screen time.
- And how could the film makers have left out Willie Whitelaw? He was Heath’s deputy and then Thatcher’s, a Tory Wet who nevertheless backed Thatcher’s Tory Drys. He was so loyal and useful to her that she once exclaimed “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie!” It would have been a much needed bit of comic relief in a film that took itself far too seriously. Further, his departure to the House of Lords meant that Thatcher lost one of her key sounding boards; he was a critic she respected enough to listen to, and losing him meant losing her eyes and ears.
- Ronald Reagan was Thatcher’s ideological soulmate and needed to be here. Just as he backed her during the Falklands crisis, she was the only European leader who backed his retaliation against Gaddafi. We do see Thatcher tearing Al Haig to pieces, but that was only a small part of the relationship between the US and the UK.
- British Prime Ministers, unlike American presidents, have very few personal aides. When cabinet meetings went late at Downing Street, Thatcher would regularly cook eggs and bacon for people working late. That’s the sort of thing that should be in a film that’s meant to be humanizing. But we don’t get the actual Thatcher: we get a Lloyd and Morgan’s caricature.