‘The Iron Lady” — a term coined as a hostile criticism of Margaret Thatcher by the Red Army newspaper in 1976 — proved to be an accurate prediction of her impact in the Cold War. It is, however, an ironic and ultimately misleading title for this Meryl Streep portrayal of the last British prime minister to play a major role on the world stage as she lives in lonely retirement. A better one would have been The Lioness in Winter.
For the film’s narrative is framed as a series of flashbacks in the memory of an elderly Lady Thatcher grieving over the death of her husband some years before. We first encounter her as a slightly confused old lady who, having escaped her police escort, is buying a pint of milk in a local store. She returns home to complain about its price to Denis, who is as lively in death as he was in life: He crops up regularly throughout the movie’s narrative of his wife’s political career to comment on her memories, her decisions, her ambition, her guilt, and her selfishness while she packs his clothes and other effects. When others are around, however, he conveniently disappears into the woodwork. Whether she is aware that “Denis” is a hallucination is never really clear — until the very end of the movie, when, all his belongings having been dispatched to a charity shop, he walks away into the next world, leaving his wife alone and bereft.
Several critics otherwise favorable to The Iron Lady have criticized this framing device as distasteful. To portray a living person, especially a distinguished stateswoman, as suffering from senile delusions is thought to be unpleasantly intrusive. That is a fair criticism. But it need not have been a disabling one if Denis’s commentaries had been kept within limits both of time and of taste. They are, however, almost the whole movie, or at least its central narrative theme. Actual historical footage of real events — the miners’ strike, the Falklands War — is little more than confirmation of Denis’s insights and observations.
It matters greatly therefore who “Denis” is and what he says. He is certainly not the historical Denis Thatcher, who would have been alarmed at some of the remarks put in his mouth. He did not believe his wife was moved by ambition rather than duty (as he argues in one crucial scene) or that she was “always alone” rather than a full family member (as he says in his final appearance). The real Denis Thatcher told friends as early as the early 1960s — a few years after his wife entered Parliament — that she would be the first woman prime minister. He was inordinately proud and entirely supportive of her.
He is presented here as the spokesman for the confused paradox at the heart of this film. It is an anti-feminist film insofar as it depicts Margaret Thatcher as the prototypical feminist career woman careless toward her family. And it is a feminist film insofar as it shows her defeating the massed ranks of prejudiced maledom to get to the top.
This paradox itself rests on a mystery: How on earth did Margaret Thatcher get elected to the leadership of a Tory party here composed entirely of male chauvinists? The various scenes in which Mrs. Thatcher battles, triumphs over, leads, and is eventually betrayed by an all-male three-piece-suited chorus line of Tories are almost balletic in character, beautifully composed, flawlessly filmed, and aching to be set to music. They have some claim to symbolic truth as a description of her relationship with the patrician Tory “wets” who provided the top leadership of the party for much of her time in politics. But these scenes are absurdly false as a portrayal of rank-and-file Tories (who, among other things, are socially much more normal than depicted here) and of her rapport with them. Mrs. Thatcher was the Tory leader most comfortable with the grassroots party since Bonar Law (d. 1923). She was elected Tory leader almost entirely with male votes — but most of them male-backbencher votes. (We know the exact total of the male-chauvinist vote in that election; it was 16 — the number of MPs who voted for the other right-winger standing against Ted Heath, an aristocratic Hugh Fraser.) She soon established herself as the darling of the whole party. All of which means that if Denis Thatcher, a self-confessed Home Counties Tory, had been an unmarried MP at the time, he would have voted for her too.