Margaret Thatcher, between myth and politics

A sympathetic film portrayal of Britain’s most divisive modern prime minister fits a broader mood of reappraisal of her years in power, says David Hayes
David Hayes
13 January 2012

This is not the kind of comeback Margaret Thatcher would ever have wanted. There was a time, in the wake of her tearful departure from 10 Downing Street in November 1990, when she seemed to be holding on to the dream of recovering Britain’s prime ministership. So dominant had she been for more than a decade - over both the country’s political scene and the psyche of millions of its citizens - that it would not have been altogether fanciful to imagine her reappearing, in the manner of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, to declaim: “I am big - it’s the politics that got small!”

But the whirligig of time has its ravages, its revenges and its rewards. Now, over two decades later, a film treatment that skilfully intertwines Thatcher’s past career glory and present fading memory, and thus depicts her as both powerful and vulnerable, offers her an unexpected late reprise. The formula - the exploits of a heroic personality shadowed by private tragedy and undone by lesser men - is reliably comforting, the central performance of Meryl Streep an impressive simulacrum. A success in its own terms, then, though any cultural trace will be (I would guess) almost imperceptible.

The baroness will not see, let alone cast any beady-eyed verdict on, The Iron Lady. In any event Margaret Thatcher always did live for politics and had little time for art in whatever form (though her notional favourite poet was the imperial tub-thumper Rudyard Kipling - like her, a great left-hater - and she favoured Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities “with its strong political flavour”). This always marked her as a philistine to many of her adversaries, admittedly a subsidiary item in a long charge-sheet. To those with some knowledge of the public world and events the film depicts - if my own reaction is any guide - the film will appear caricatural and depoliticised to an almost unwatchable degree. But if The Iron Lady is thus a minor indication that Margaret Thatcher is becoming ever more a mythic figure, it also invites an effort to look at its subject in the perspective of politics and history.

[To read on in Inside Story, click here - ]

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