The remarkable thing about Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) in The Iron Lady is how utterly un-conservative she actually is. True enough, the scenes from Thatcher’s youth (in which she’s played by Alexandra Roach) find her gazing bright-eyed at her father as he discusses the virtues of hard work, character, and individualism. But it’s that “gazing bright-eyed” bit on Thatcher’s part that really stands out. The young Margaret may be a conservative in terms of policy frameworks, but true to Corey Robin’s recent thesis, she is an out-and-out revolutionary in terms of political approach, temperament, and philosophy. Convinced the moral precepts and ideals she inherited from her father can remake Britain for the better, Thatcher enters into politics determined to smash and overcome what she perceives as the sclerosis and moral inertia of Britain’s socio-economic status quo.
In her first encounter with the movers and shakers of British politics — an unpleasant experience which nevertheless provides her an ally and future husband (initially Harry Lloyd and later Jim Broadbent) — Thatcher does indeed encounter dismissal and contempt due to her sex. This does not, however, seem to surprise or unnerve her. What really cuts to the young woman’s core is the self-satisfied cynicism of the older male MPs, and their resignation to the dilution of principle as the nature of politics in the real world. In response, Thatcher’s youthful grief and disappointment in her elders is so earnest it almost pulses from the screen.
Convincingly portraying such a wide swath of a human life is always one of the particular challenges of a film like this. So it’s to both Streep and Roach’s immense credit that their performances are almost seamlessly integrated, and between the two of them, Thatcher’s ferocious and destabilizing idealism comes through as the organizing principle of her life and character. Whether she is smashing the unions in the name of economic efficiency, slashing government spending during a recession in the name of fiscal conservatism, or pursuing the war in the Falklands in the name of Britain’s honor, that idealism is her consistent force.
Of course, there is a word for this kind of idealistic temperament, with its belief that the proper principles and the will to act can remake society and the world for the better. But “conservatism” is not it. No genuine conservative would observe, as Thatcher does, that Americans are not “defined by their past” but “by their philosophy,” and intend it as a compliment. Conservatism, above all else, is concerned with limitations — with our weaknesses, boundaries, social contingencies, and inevitable failures as human beings. It has no truck with the notion that the binding tissues of society, culture, and especially of history can be transcended by the pure power of ideas.
Obviously, classic Hollywood storytelling most definitely does truck in things like individualism, optimism, and uncompromising principle. So this could simply be a case of the film industry remaking a conservative icon in its own image. But I don’t think so simply because this kind of outlook actually explains Thatcher’s behavior extraordinarily well, along with that of Ronald Reagan and (most) of the modern conservative movement they inspired. The supreme irony of our current politics is that Thatcher, Reagan and their movement were in fact a kind of weird mutant variation on progressive liberalism. The dark side of this synthesis is that it actually provides the worst of both worlds: All of conservatism’s quasi-Nietzschian infatuation with the upper classes but none of its prudence or self-awareness. All of progressive liberalism’s gusto for upending institutions and smashing the status quo, with none of its compassion for the weak or moral focus on the poor.
Some of The Iron Lady’s later scenes hint at this paradox, as Thatcher becomes increasingly isolated and brittle. She berates her lieutenants over the slightest oversights and primly denounces the world for continuing to fail to live up to her high expectations. Meanwhile, the large amount of time the film spends cutting back to Thatcher’s struggles with dementia and the death of her husband, which are poignant but without strong narrative purpose. Yet they may unintentionally serve as a kind of gentle rebuke to the attitudes which drove her in her prime: sooner or later, all humans must bend to the weight of reality and entropy.
It’s to the film’s credit that I’m spending so much time discussing the ideas it raises and so little on the ins and outs of its qualities. Still, as cinematic storytelling, The Iron Lady is good but not great. It’s adroitly shot and well edited, the performances are good, and Streep herself approaches the extraordinary. But it has a tendency to decay into episodic pastiche. Teasing out the foundation of Thatcher’s nature is the best part about the film, but like Thatcher herself, The Iron Lady’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It’s so thoroughly focused on the experience of her character, and particularly her personal struggle against patriarchy, that it almost completely fails to render a judgment on the results of her character in office.
At one point, Thatcher declares her disdain for modern western society’s emphasis on feelings over ideas — a sentiment in which she and I are in accord. So it’s ironic The Iron Lady devotes itself almost solely to how good it feels to watch its heroine stand firm on her principles, be it opposing the unions or cutting the budget during a recession. Whether these policies were actually good ideas is a question left entirely unexamined.
I realize it’s treacherously difficult to explore questions of policy through the storytelling medium of cinema. But it seems that a movie seeking to take on the life of one of the 20th Century’s most consequential — and controversial — political leaders has an obligation to try, difficulty or no. That’s a sentiment with which I imagine Margaret Thatcher herself would agree.