The Iron Lady: More nightmare than politics

| January 26, 2012

Both as a movie buff and a veteran leftie, I've been waiting to see The Iron Lady so I could write about it. I even re-read Thatcher's memoirs The Downing Street Years to refresh my memory.

Having now seen the movie, I have to admit that I'm perplexed as to what to say and advise, other than that you should definitely see it and make up your own mind.

Like 99.9 per cent of the critics, it must be said loud and clear that Meryl Streep's performance as Thatcher is magnificent, so much so as to justify seeing the movie for that alone. Above all, Streep is utterly compelling as an old and demented Thatcher, carrying on conversations with her dead husband Denis who is, for her, still present.

That final phase of Thatcher's life is no add-on but central to the movie. Her life unfolds through the prism of her demented mind. It is unclear to me why the movie is made that way but it has fascinating consequences.

Events unroll as if in a newsreel, the images quick and stark, with a dream-like, nightmarishly surreal quality. For this reviewer that was an unexpected and most impressive feature of this film but I sense that is a minority view.

Maybe the message is that if we live long enough this is what our memories will be reduced to.

Thatcher was the most political of persons: so what are the politics of this movie? The central conceit is that Thatcherism -- a phrase Mrs. Thatcher used herself -- sprung from the mind of Thatcher. The personal and the political are simply conflated. You'll learn little here -- please forgive the language -- about the roots of neo-conservatism. This movie should be screened in medical schools, not political science departments.

Thatcher was the first woman to head a Western democracy, a great victory for feminism which, predictably, she deplored. She saw herself as the first woman who was man enough to beat the men and bring them to heel. That is the one clear, though unsurprising, political message of this film.

Thatcher loved war. The Falklands War figures more prominently in the movie than anything she did as prime minister but still fails, oddly, to capture the blissful orgasmic peaks of her memoirs.

Nor is there any hint of her love of nuclear weapons and the threat of first use and her pride in her conviction that this was what ended the Cold War and destroyed the Soviet Union. No mention anywhere as to how the Cuban Missile Crisis had almost ended the world before she stepped on the stage.

And while I'm at it, nothing about Thatcher's loyalty, after she left office, to the odious torturer and murderer General Pinochet. Why didn't she have nightmares about that?

On the one hand, on the other hand. When you've figured this movie out, let me know.

Mel Watkins is a Canadian political economist and activist. He is professor emeritus of economics and political science at the University of Toronto. He was a founder and co-leader with James Laxer of the Waffle and supported the New Politics Initiative.

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