Sympathy for the devil: Film justifies Thatcher's crimes

December 29, 2011

The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, written by Abi Morgan, starring Meryl Streep
In cinemas now

Film can be a powerful ideological tool. Truth can be manipulated, tyrannies expunged and sympathy conjured for the devil. The Iron Lady, depicting the life and times of former British Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is just such a film.

A generation after Thatcher’s unceremonious dumping by her own party as PM, and as the aging dowager struggles with dementia, the film tries to paint her as a modern-day British hero, struggling against the evils of terrorism, unionism and fascism (the Argentine junta) to deliver Britain into an age of unending prosperity and sunshine.

Iron Lady is a completely uncritical presentation of Thatcher’s legacy, a breathtaking attempt at rewriting history in favour of the Tory icon.

Thatcher is depicted as a Tory outsider, born of humble beginnings, but desperate to deliver genuine “equality of opportunity” to all. Meryl Streep’s Thatcher is a determined reformer, taking on the power of vested interests (whether the toffs of the Tory party or the unions) in the name of Britain’s shopkeepers and other hard-working folk.

The film tries to rehabilitate Thatcher’s entire political legacy, even those aspects that her own party has tried to quietly walk away from.

The sinking of the Argentinean warship General Belgrano, during the brief but brutal British war to recapture the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands in 1982, even though the ship was heading away from the British-imposed exclusion zone around the islands, was justified because the ship may have been going to change course. More than 300 people died.

The wrecking of British industry, the creation of 3 million unemployed and the destruction of entire communities in the north of England is justified by the subsequent prosperity generated for some as Britain became the financial centre of Europe.

The film even tries to justify the notorious poll tax, a deeply regressive tax under which all British residents were to pay the same tax, regardless of income or wealth. The huge popular campaign against the poll tax made it practically inoperable, and forced its withdrawal by Thatcher’s Tory successor, John Major.

Not that there’s any hint of that in the film; Streep’s Thatcher simply says that it’s necessary, because everyone must pay something for the privilege of living in Britain!

Opposition to Thatcher is caricatured. The mass protests against mine closures in England and against the poll tax are simply shown as violent riots. The only articulate opposition to Thatcher in the film is parliamentary, in the form of British Labour Party leader Michael Foot.

In the fashion of all conservative films made after 9/11, much is made of Thatcher’s opposition to terrorism - in this case the Irish struggle against British occupation. The film focuses on the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing campaign within Britain - particularly the attack on the Tory Party conference at Brighton in southern England in October 1984.

Thatcher is painted as a hero standing up against the Irish bullies, rather than the principal organiser of Irish oppression. The shameful persecution of republican prisoners in the infamous H-Block prison in Ireland's north, which culminated in 10 prisoners starving themselves to death in 1981 as Thatcher refused to negotiate over their key demand for political status, barely rates a mention.

The prisoners enjoyed widespread popular support and the first prisoner to die - Bobby Sands - was dramatically elected to parliament from prison during his hunger strike. This humiliation for Thatcher doesn't feature in the film.

The Iron Lady is not content simply to whitewash Thatcher’s legacy. It also seeks to curry sympathy for the devil herself. Throughout much of the film, Thatcher is portrayed as she is now, a demented old woman, struggling to tell the difference between reality and delusion.

Her chats with her dead husband Denis, and her struggle to pack up his belongings seven years after his death, would soften the hardest heart. But Thatcher is not the nice old lady who lives next door. She is not a poor widow, struggling to make ends meet and pay for the heating in her council flat. She’s an icon of the neoliberal movement in Britain and elsewhere; a woman whose government smashed social services, destroyed communities and killed thousands of Argentinean conscripts in an unjust, if popular, war.

The Iron Lady, while well acted and snappily produced, is no more than a falsification of history, intended to rehabilitate Thatcher’s legacy as another Tory government in Britain begins to take the cudgels to whatever remnants of British society that Thatcher left standing.


" another Tory government in Britain begins to take the cudgels to whatever remnants of British society that Thatcher [and her Labour party successors] left standing."
I'm disappointed with this review. The writers and director of the film have been very clear that they did not set out to tell the political story of Thatcher's parliamentary life. The film not intending to be a well-rounded documentary of Thatcher's years in parliament and her legacy from a Marxist perspetive, it's a portrait of her, her relationship with her husband and of dementia. It doesn't portray her as a saint either. Like any rounded drama, it depicts Thatcher's personal deficiencies as well as her strengths. In that respect, it does humanise her personally (she is a human after all), but it's not commenting on neo-liberalism or her policies. It's not an overtly political film in intention, and it shows her to be pathologically single-minded and able to blot out small sacrifices in favour of her overall strategy (this, in my opinion, is how the film shows the Falklands issue, Thatcher rationalises deaths of a few in favour of Britain's overall victory). The film doesn't analyse her treatment of IRA prisoners, and that doesn't mean it's apologising for her. It just means that the filmmakers have used the political struggles as scaffolding for the personal narrative and character arc of the story - again, it's not meant to be a fully-formed thesis, it's a semi-fictional film and as such it treats Thatcher as a rounded character. I'm not saying that the film is devoid of ideology, it certainly does make a lot of her battles to overcome gender inequality and so on - but to say that it's purpose is to revise history and promote Thatcher's legacy is criticising the film for something it doesn't aim to do - give a socialist critique of the Thatcher years. I do think though that this film (and Meryl Streep's likely Oscar win) will revive interest in Thatcher, and this gives the left an opportunity to throw in some genuine political analysis, but slamming the entire film for not giving a hard left analysis of the doesn't help us to engage in that discussion. Again, for the most part, the film didn't centre on her political "achievements" in office, but her personal hardships and relationships. If you think that in and of itself is currying sympathy for neoliberal politics, well...that's another discussion. Yeah, there's the whole identity politics about women leaders in parliament and so on, but that's hardly new and it's not justifying Thatcher's awful policies. It's possible that discussion around the film could lead to a revision of Thatcher's politics, but that's all about political context, critics, politicians' input, etc....not the film itself aiming to "curry sympathy" for the devil. (PS. it's worth adding that the director is a real Hollywood blockbuster director - she directed Mamma Mia, one of the top-grossing films of its year. This is a money-making project, not an ideological project.) There is a much more nuanced discussion about the political questions arising from the film over at Huffington Post, entitled "Love the Iron Lady, Not Margaret Thatcher" - The Huffington Post article shows that it's possible for the left to engage with the complex political ideas arising from cultural products without publishing reviews that make outlandish claims like "falsification of history".
The author appears to have a poor grasp of his subject. The Belgrano was a legitimate target from the outset of hostilities. The Zone was declared for the benefit of nuetral vessels and Argentina fully understood the dangers. This has been confirmed by the Captain of the Belgrano. The decision to sink her was perfectly reasonable. If you start a shooting war, you have to accept the consequences. The bleating of the far left cannot disguise that fact. Maggie did what she had to do. She certainly showed more bottle than many of her peers.
Perhaps Comrade Matthews and I saw a different movie?The film is clearly not a particularly critical look at Thatcher's time in office.It deals with a lengthy period of history in a short space of time.Most of the big battles of Thatcher's reign are dealt with as if we were watching the 6 o'clock news all over again - scenes of police attacking miners etc. One would hope that the readers of this newspaper wouldn't be feeling any 'sympathy' for the aged class warrior.It certainly didn't make me re-evaluate my deccision to drink quite a few glasses of champagne when she pops her cork!
Counterfire The Iron Lady: authentic portrayal or just bad taste? TUESDAY, 10 JANUARY 2012 18:53 WRITTEN BY DAN POULTON Meryl Streep has received high praise for an undeniably impressive performance of one of Britain's most controversial prime ministers. Dan Poulton nominates The Iron Lady for Most Brazenly Depoliticised Political Biopic. The sticking point around the latest Thatcher biopic (of which films there are many) is the debate around the virtues of Meryl Streep's empathetic portrayal of a woman who was lauded by some, and viscerally hated by many others. To most on the left, a humanised depiction of a woman who caused such social misery, and was the locus point of one of Britain's most bitter class battles (and emblematic of a newly resurgent ruling class offensive) is not only inappropriate but perhaps even deliberately provocative. To some on the right, in an attempt to re-assert Thatcherite ideology, Streep's presumably Oscar-winning role, is the perfect focus point of a film that has had an otherwise tepid critical reception. To most rightwing commentators the film is either, rather bizarrely, a pseudo-liberal fantasy which 'consistently, and predictably, sacrifices complexity and depth in order to pretend that Margaret Thatcher was something she never set out to be, a feminist icon' (The Daily Mail); or an apolitical fuddle whose 'shallowness grates, whatever your politics. Mrs Thatcher’s steely intellectualism is all too often thrown into fuzzy focus...' (The Times). Director Phyllida Lloyd admits that the film does not try to 'cast a judgement on Thatcher's policies', asserting that it is 'political in a feminist way' for putting 'an old lady at the centre of the story'. It is only by framing Thatcher's rise to power in terms of her struggle against class and gender politics that it is possible to present her rise as a good thing. 'What works in a grocer's shop may not work in this constituency', chides one Tory as Thatcher runs for her first seat in parliament; 'the right honourable lady needs to calm down!' taunts a Labour front bencher, echoing Cameron’s recent sexist jibe to Angela Eagle. It is only by presenting Thatcher to us at her weakest and most vulnerable – suffering from encroaching senile dementia – that it is possible to make us sympathise with her character, ‘whatever our political views’. This to me is an unfairness at the core of the film because the reality is that this was a woman who forced people to pick sides. You were either at the receiving end of a policeman's baton (or in one shocking archive shot, what appears to be a length of steel pipe), or you were a corporation swooping in on privatised social infrastructure. Under Thatcher you were either a winner or a loser. Victim or aggressor, and we know which category Thatcher falls into. This is a woman who, amongst other vile acts, let republican hunger strikers die, starved striking miners and ordered the aggressive sinking of the General Belgrano (killing the 300 Argentinian sailors on board and leading to deadly reprisals from the Argentinian junta.) If the film spent as much time presenting us with these scenes of ruthless aggression as it spent dwelling on a fictionalised account of her battle with dementia (in the end she manages to exorcise the ghost of her dead husband; in real life dementia, no such resolution can be found) the film would not perhaps have ended with sensitive gasps of sorrow from some of the audience members next to me. That is what is so frustrating about this film – it's not real. I wanted to stand up in my seat and shout 'it's not real, you're all being taken in!' We're not shown reality on the screen, we're shown a massaged, depoliticised, oddly romanticised world where a doddery old lady wrestles with flashbacks from her past, which unfolds with the briskness of a little Englander schmaltz-fest awkwardly stitched to an Alan Bennett tragicomedy, only interrupted by spasms of Saving Private Ryan-esque scenes of shocking violence on the streets of Britain and the shores of a tiny island thousands of miles away that should by all rights belong to Argentina. For me the whole film experience was like washing down a cocktail of speed, valium and anti-depressants with a bottle of Dennis Thatcher's whiskey, and surviving. Barely. The Iron Lady may well win an Oscar for best performance, but it should win one in another category, Most Brazenly Depoliticised Political Biopic. The question is, should we be sympathising with a political ideologue who gutted British industry, put millions out of work and ushered in a neoliberal era of deepening class divides? The obvious answer seems to be no, but still the film tries to jerk tears from our eyes quicker than Thatcher snatched milk. We see an old lady weep over her dead husband, and quiveringly ask 'were you happy, Dennis? Be honest...' to which there is no reply, he's by now long dead. There's no doubt that this scene is a powerful and moving piece of melodrama. If only Thatcher had been capable of the empathy and understanding this film demands of its audience, perhaps the world would now be a different place. For all the merits of Streep’s creation, to duck the impact of Thatcher's policies on millions of people is just not on. If nothing else it's bad taste.

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