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The Iron Lady: Thatcher film misses the misery she dealt

A new film on the life of Margaret Thatcher is a confused disappointment, argues Pat Stack

Issue No. 2284

Rarely have I watched a film with such a contrast between the brilliance of a leading actor and the mediocrity of the film itself.

The Iron Lady is a film of the life of Margaret Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep. It is set in her old age, as she suffers from dementia.

Through the use of flashbacks it then tries to show us all the key events of her life.

We see Thatcher as the young, father-worshipping grocer’s daughter, right through to her removal as prime minister in November 1990.

Thatcher’s offspring Mark and Carol have apparently dismissed the film as a “left wing fantasy”. Let me assure you—it is nothing of the sort.


Streep provides a strong portrayal of Thatcher’s hostility to trade unions, Europe, “terrorists”, invading “Argies” and the like.

It is so strong, in fact, that attempts to show the discord, ruthlessness and misery she represented get lost.

The odd speech of a Labour politician, or the (often real) footage of riots, pickets and protests, lose their power to Streep’s overwhelming presence.

It is hard to get people to identify with nameless protesters against an image of a grocer’s daughter beating all the odds to become Tory leader and then prime minister.

As a result, the film fails to convey the utter contempt so many held her in. In my lifetime there may have been worse politicians—Enoch Powell, for instance. But few engendered the utter hatred that Thatcher did.

The film also fails to show in any real depth the misery Thatcher wrought on all but the privileged and wealthy.

Indeed it wants to champion her as the friend of the “get-up-and-go little people” against the Tory grandee class (which, interestingly, is now firmly back in power).

But Thatcher, for all her grocer’s daughter truisms, was always on the side of big business.

She unfettered the City and the banks. She initiated a huge growth in wealth disparity between rich and poor that continues to the present.

So the film is no left wing fantasy. But does it work as a film? Again, the answer is no.

The use of flashbacks made it feel very fragmented. Had I not lived through the period I think I’d have been utterly confused as to the sequence and significance of events.

Perhaps more annoying is the inaccuracy and muddle some of the flashbacks convey. So footage of the 1974 miners’ strike is shown alongside footage of the Winter of Discontent, although they were separated by five years.

Flashbacks of political events come in the wrong order. Some, like the Irish hunger strike or the pit closures, are shown with such brevity that you fail to grasp their importance.


The poll tax riots are shown, but there is no mention of the huge numbers who refused to pay the tax.

Her fall, which of course was pure drama, is dealt with in a very fleeting way. But Streep portrays very well the bullying, hectoring and loss of contact with reality that characterised Thatcher’s final months in power.

The most coherent part of the film is the most fictionalised. We see Thatcher hallucinating and suffering from dementia. She keeps being visited by dead husband Denis.

We see a Thatcher who looks back with sadness in lucid moments at her personal and political loss.

And we see a once all-powerful political figure desperately dealing with her new found powerlessness.

Streep’s portrayal of grief and the loss of faculties is very powerful. The problem is that the grief and loss is being suffered by Margaret Thatcher.

Therefore, to put it frankly, I don’t give a damn. And in that, I expect I’m far from being alone.

The Iron Lady, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is in cinemas now. For more information go to

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Tue 3 Jan 2012, 18:15 GMT
Issue No. 2284
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