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The Lioness in Winter

by John O'Sullivan

‘Lady Thatcher’ comes to the big screen

‘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.

If “Denis” is not Denis, then, who is he? As a hallucination produced by her mind/imagination/conscience, he is presumably a reflection of the inmost “feelings” that, as she boldly tells her doctor, she distrusts (preferring “thoughts”). But has anybody heard Mrs. Thatcher express the “feelings” relayed through “Denis,” either today or before she began to suffer the ravages of age? None of her friends or former colleagues can remember her doing so. Nor do they ring true as typically “her.” And that being the case, “Denis” is really a ventriloquist’s dummy for the scriptwriter and director.

That must be so in some sense, of course. But the defective sense in which it is true here is that this ventriloquist’s dummy is also a Greek chorus. He is the truth-teller who gives us the psychological reality of Margaret Thatcher that explains her politics, her rise, and eventually her fall.

At first glance the politics described by the film is a kaleidoscopic jumble — the struggle against inflation, the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the end of the Cold War — each conveyed in a few phrases, some footage of rioting and fighting, a handful of bold declaratory speeches by our heroine, and then on to the next item. To some extent, this compression is a cinematic necessity. The Cold War is compressed into Thatcher dancing with Reagan, the Berlin Wall coming down, the Paris conference that ended the Cold War (and that received the news of her defeat by Michael Heseltine, which triggered her downfall). Her opposition to the euro is alluded to in a single sentence (perhaps added very recently). The 1974 Tory crisis is pictorially represented by dramatic scenes of rubbish piling up that really relate to the 1979 “winter of discontent” under Labour. And so on. But we get very little context that would explain the reasons for these various conflicts — nothing about the revived Soviet threat of the mid- to late-1970s, nothing about the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, mounting an explicitly political challenge to the government, nothing about the erosion of national sovereignty within the European Union. This is a film about politics without politics.

In the absence of political context, however, all these different conflicts seem to be united by only one thing: namely, the nature of Thatcher herself and her “divisive” leadership. And that is really the movie’s all-too-evident subtext: She is “a battler” who has “battled all her life.” She battles her way through all these various conflicts accompanied by her tap-dancing cabinet, first as sullen plotters, then as reluctant warriors counseling inaction, then as toadying sycophants in the face of her successes, then as sullen plotters again who realize that she has finally gone too far and can be brought down. Her career was magnificent in its way, but was it really necessary? Did Britain pay too high a price? Did her family pay too high a price? Did she herself pay too high a price?

No! No! No! is an appropriately Thatcherite answer to those last three questions. But I shouldn’t let that deter you from seeing the movie. Though in the end this is a sentimental story about an elder stateswoman reliving her life in a melancholy mood, it is a riveting story cleverly told and elevated by a superb and uncannily accurate performance from Meryl Streep that goes far beyond brilliant imitation. A moving and exciting story, but, as our parents used to say, it’s just a story. And one that, even if it were about someone else, I don’t think Lady Thatcher would go to see.

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