I saw The Iron Lady. To my surprise, I didn’t completely hate it.
I had seen the film criticised for being too soft on Thatcher, or lionising her, and completely glossing over some incredibly salient issues during her stint as Chief Dickhead, most important being the miners’ strike. It did indeed have these flaws, yet I read the film differently.
The narrative is framed around an elderly Thatcher in the present day reflecting on her life. In the present day segments, Thatcher is portrayed as deep in the throes of dementia, hallucinating her dead husband and swilling rum. The first time we see the character is her hand snatching milk, having wandered away from home. Past and present repeatedly collide for the frail old tyrant and we are treated to a brief history of Margaret Thatcher shown through the eyes of Margaret Thatcher.
Of course the biography is sanitised, therefore. The story is shown to us entirely through an unreliable narrator. Our designated protagonist is reflecting on her life from a position of fragile mental health and a memory-impeding condition. It is hardly surprising, then, that all of Thatcher’s orations are accompanied by stirring orchestral swells, and she is seen as a lone crusader battling against all odds. Her memories culminate in her leaving Downing Street to rose-petal strewn floors, surrounded by adoring fans rather than the more familiar crying woman in a car. The narrative is sanitised, as the narrator has sanitised it.
Yet reality creeps in. The film makes use of newsreel footage, which shows us the poll tax riots, the public sector strikes and the sinking of the Belgrano. At one point our designated protagonist is told “you can’t just close down conversation that isn’t what you want to hear”. In the next scene, she is shown turning off a television just before a newscaster describes the criticisms laid against Thatcher. This, ultimately, is what the film is about: a fallen tyrant deep in denial about her wrongs.
More interestingly, even in Thatcher’s favourable memories of herself, she is still a complete and utter raving bellend spouting dangerous neoliberal nonsense. No amount of swelling strings can cover it. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the writing draws attention to parallels between Thatcher and the current government, choosing to emphasis public sector strikes over the miners and discussing the deficit. To the informed viewer, this film draws a clear line from Thatcher to Blair to David Cameron, demonstrating how one can play with words to hide the hideous truth.
While some have compared The Iron Lady to Downfall in its humanising of a seemingly inhuman target, I feel it is closer to Lolita. What appears to be sympathy is in fact a desperate bid from an unreliable narrator to cast themselves as a much-maligned hero. Thatcher is Humbert Humbert, and Britain is an unfortunate pubescent girl. If only the film were an iota as good as Nabokov or Kubrick.
I went into the film expecting to despise it. I went in expecting conservative propaganda, a Forrest Gump for this generation, and what I got was something more interesting and complex. It was a poor film about Thatcherism, but I left feeling uplifted. Maybe, just maybe, Thatcherism itself will end up sad and alone, marooned at the top of the stairs without even an imaginary husband for company.