Call it the Meryl Streep money shot, the scene most likely to appear in the Oscar montage for best actress. Margaret Thatcher sits in a patient’s paper gown, grasping for her wits through a fog of Alzheimer’s, aware she must perform a charade of competency. A young doctor peppers her with questions about whether she’s experiencing hallucinations and how she's feeling. And just like that, the anxious old woman transforms, replaced by a former U.K. prime minister who draws herself up, fixes her opponent with a glare, and issues a flinty indictment about the tyranny of modern life, dominated by those who “care more about feelings than thoughts and ideas.”
The irony is that the much-anticipated The Iron Lady hews precisely to this formula. Long on sentiment but short on statement, the film is a star vehicle for Streep, who does her usual, impeccable job of conjuring flesh and blood out of a stale script. This time she’s channeling director Phyllida Lloyd’s take on Thatcher as a grocer’s daughter who battled stuffed-shirt sexism to become one of the most powerful and controversial leaders in the world. Lloyd catches her subject on the downswing, however, recounting the story of Thatcher’s reign through a series of senility-induced flashbacks. By telling this story from the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator, Lloyd presents a more intimate than iconic portrait of Thatcher—a small-screen lady Lear on the heath. As Thatcher is still alive, some of her supporters have looked askance at the film’s alleged insensitivity and invasion of privacy. Thatcher herself might have protested this treatment as well, but for different reasons. It seems unlikely that the powerhouse who shredded Britain’s post-war social-democratic contract, sacked scores of ministers, and went to war with “the enemy without” (the Argentinian junta over the Falklands) and “the enemy within” (striking miners at home) would prefer a profile more focused on Thatcher than Thatcherism, particularly if that portrait failed to reveal her relevance today.
With her embrace of free-market ideology, dismantling of public services and union power, and the sugar frosting/steel cake mien conservatives seem to favor in female politicians, Thatcher has become a Tea Party darling. More than any conservative before her, she understood that Britain’s social order was ripe for a fall—that the individualism of the 1960s could be yoked to a desire for upward mobility that would disrupt the country’s class and political affiliations. With the Housing Act of 1980, she granted millions of working-class families the right to buy their government-subsidized homes—and wooed them away from their Labour party stronghold. True, Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter, but her father, Alfred Roberts, was also the mayor of Grantham, and his politically savvy daughter tapped into the middle-class’s distaste for those who relied on handouts—government-granted or unearned inheritances alike—and turned it into in-your-face populism.
But Thatcher’s reign also provides a fair warning for our times. In her early years, she went after inflation rather than unemployment, cutting government spending and raising interest rates—a move that sent England down the road to recession. Unemployment doubled to three million, sparking riots, blackouts, and strikes that left garbage filling the streets. Thatcher, however, had implemented the recommendations of a government committee that called for a dramatic raise in police salaries—up to 45 percent in some cases—along with an increase in their recruitment, so she was ready to put a harsh end to the unrest.
Shortly thereafter, the Falkland War both bloodied and bailed her out, leaving Thatcher well-primed to whack the next challenge to her power: the miners’ union that had helped bring down her predecessor, Edward Heath, with a crippling strike in 1974. She’d stockpiled coal and used MI5 to infiltrate miners’ groups before she fired a shot over the bow—a proposal to close down 20 pits employing some 20,000 workers, a move that sent the miners into a doomed strike. After a year of brinkmanship, Thatcher broke the trade unions’ backs, and with a slash in public services, the fortunes of much of northern England, Scotland, and Wales. Inflation soared again and many who had bought their council homes found them repossessed. Her attempt to implement a poll tax sparked riots, and finally a ministerial mutiny that forced her exit from 10 Downing Street.
High drama, but one wouldn’t know it from The Iron Lady, which plays like a domestic weepie spliced together with a historical clip reel. The film is so interior as to be hermetic, with criticisms of Thatcher’s policies stuffed into two unenlightening tropes—either some angry mullet foaming and barking outside her limo window or the viperous hissing of "grocer’s daughter" by the public-school boys turned MPs. And for all of its urge to plumb the depths of the person behind the politician, The Iron Lady doesn’t even tap into some of the richest veins—how Thatcher’s muscular English nationalism fit in with her sexual allure (yes, you read that right), how she married a girls-are-better-than-boys playground rhetoric with staunch individualism, why she felt consensus was for Quislings. For a film set in a character’s autumnal years, a period often imbued with regret and reckoning, there’s little mention of Thatcher’s legacy of privatization, deregulation, and recalibration of the left far to the right of where it had been.
The Iron Lady could have forced Yank viewers to replace their outmoded ideas of Thatcher as all helmet hair, British teeth, and shoulder pads. Popular U.K. puppet-satire show “Spitting Image” dressed her as a dominatrix, as did Barney’s window decorator Simon Doonan. Francois Mitterand said she had the “eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” As Julian Barnes wrote, “If the House of Commons, with its incessant background noise, its schoolboy rowdiness, its dominant maleness, and its low level of repartée, often resembles nothing so much as the canteen in a minor public school, then Mrs. Thatcher is cast as Matron”—a role she obviously relished when she told Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at a 1981 economic summit meeting to “stop acting like a naughty schoolboy” and spanked Christopher Hitchens with a rolled-up parliamentary order. (That last is simply too good—scroll down to “Naughty Maggie” for a read.) For the manky male political id, Thatcher’s dominance triggered both terror and desire, and therein underlay the sense of political anxiety, guilt, and relief at her ouster—“It was like killing your mother,” said one British colleague.
Thatcher was certainly canny at using the rhetoric of good housekeeping and women’s superiority to back her points, uttering such bon mots as “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” even as she declared that she owed nothing to women’s liberation. Thatcher’s derogatory views on identity politics are in keeping with her fetishization of the exceptional, entrepreneurial individual—after all, by boot-strapping herself into power she provided a template for a whole nation and a role for herself as the schoolmarm who would beat you with her Yes, You Can stick. Not surprisingly, she had little time for the snoozy political consensus nor the social-welfare safety net that preceded her, and worked at dismantling its geopolitical equivalent with her early embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev. For Thatcher, the free market was the future. “There is no alternative,” she famously declared, then sought to make it so. Now that the House That Thatcher Built (and New Labour helped renovate) is crumbling, there is no clear way forward … and riots reminiscent of Thatcher’s early years just behind.
This is the story Meryl Streep deserved to sink her horsey prosthetic choppers into, but that grande dame seems doomed to put her shine into nickel-plated settings. A pity, as this could have been a film—not just a role—of real relevance. Thatcher galvanized political dialogue, fueled a renaissance of cultural discontent, and left behind a legacy of drastic change and increased social mobility—both upward and downward. Much of our current moment was born from her reign; it is no time to be lost, like The Iron Lady’s Thatcher, in a fog of forgetting, regret, and recrimination.
Many thanks to my colleagues Alexis Buisson and Kung Li for their insights, and particularly to Arun Kundnani for his trenchant analysis of the Thatcher years.