Much like Thatcher herself, Abi Morgan’s latest biopic was always going to divide opinion. Never one to shy away from potential controversy, I chose to watch “The Iron Lady” with a man who describes himself as “liberal”. I was almost disappointed to find that we both very much enjoyed it. I must confess to having been a little dubious about the casting of Meryl Streep when it was first announced, and did wonder why no British actress could be found to play one of the country’s most famous leaders.
Like so many others, though, I was proven wrong, and glad to be. Streep was luminous in the role, and captured perfectly Thatcher’s immeasurable drive, but also her vulnerability as she struggled to balance family life with political duty and eventually succumbed to dementia. Much has been made of this aspect of the film. David Cameron apparently felt that it was inappropriate to release the film before Margaret Thatcher’s death and said that: “It’s really a film about ageing, dementia, rather than a wonderful prime minister.” I would be inclined to disagree with that statement, which is why I have no wish to dwell on that here.The film used a number of the major events during her premiership to show how they shaped her political career as well as her personal and professional relationships.
The scene I found most heartbreaking actually took place while she was prime minister. It was the one where Airey Neave, then shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is killed by an IRA car bomb as he leaves the Houses of Parliament car park. Morgan has used a little poetic licence here, since, as Boris Johnson has attested, Margaret Thatcher was not actually in the car park when Neave was killed. This scene did, however, serve to show the closeness of their relationship, and her despair at the “incalculable loss”.
The real Thatcher conveyed this affection through her tribute to Neave, in which she said: “He was one of freedom’s warriors. No one knew of the great man he was, except those nearest to him. He was staunch, brave, true, strong; but he was very gentle and kind and loyal. It’s a rare combination of qualities. There’s no one else who can quite fill them. I, and so many other people, owe so much to him and now we must carry on for the things he fought for and not let the people who got him triumph.”
Throughout the film she shows a genuine commitment to achieving this goal and upholding Neave’s memory. The freedom to which she refers is one of the key political themes portrayed, and it was central to Thatcher’s policies. From the beginning she was concerned to empower citizens and give them the tools to liberate themselves from the yokes of poverty and unemployment. For all the unpopular mistakes she arguably made, we must remember that Thatcher was leading the country at a time of great economic upheaval, which makes this film so relevant in the present climate.
Britain under Thatcher was plagued by the threat of Irish terrorism, much as Islamic terrorism haunts public life today. Aside from the car bomb with killed Neave, the film also depicts the notorious “Brighton bomb” atrocity, which happened at the Conservative party conference of 1984. There is a moment when she fears that her beloved Denis has been killed, and she seems to remember how important he is to her and half realises that he has been forced to live in the shadow of her political ambition.
The film shows the bravery with which Margaret and Denis Thatcher escaped the scenes of horror and destruction in the Brighton attack, and the courage she showed in continuing to promote the policies she believed in, even in the face of violent resistance. Indeed, it is the obvious strength she emanated during her years in power, particularly in the scenes which address the Falklands War, that makes her ultimate fragility all the more tragic.