Herodotus was one of the first people to weave a narrative out of history. The fundamental problem of the art is the same for him as it is now: if the audience knows the history, how do you create the tension, drama, and suspense needed for an engaging story?
Herodotus’ solution was to lie. History is much easier to write about when you can just fabricate it.
For the first fifteen minutes of The Iron Lady, it seemed that Hollywood was taking yet another leaf out of Herodotus’ book. Clearly, the easiest way to make Margaret Thatcher human is to fabricate a sob story about a woman battler who defeats male rivals, the working classes, and Argentinians only to be destroyed by mental illness. It could happen to any one of us.
Many reviews have complained that the movie is unfair to Thatcher. The film, it is argued, turns the proud, formidable woman into a pathetic, feeble creature who does little but morn the death of her husband. A friend of mine noted that the entire plot of the movie is ‘A woman who used to be Prime Minister empties out her dead husband’s wardrobe.’
When we see the flashbacks of Thatcher’s life, it’s difficult to feel any suspense. Will Thatcher become Prime Minister? (SPOILER ALERT: Yes. She does) Will the UK retaliate against the Argentinian incursion in the Falklands in what might later be known as ‘The Falklands War’? SPOILER ALERT: The Falklands War happens) Will Thatcher be toppled by political rivals within her party? (SPOILER ALERT: Yes again)
The inability to create suspense results in a haphazard ramble through history. The past happens. Neither Romulans nor the Borg threaten the past as we know it. It just happens in chronological order until we get to the end of the flashbacks.
So you have to create your own fun with the film. For example, I kept wondering if Gordon Reece would declare ‘England prevails!’. You can also ask whether scenes would be funnier if Baby Elephant Walk replaced the indulgent strings of the soundtrack.
Ultimately, the film is incoherent as a biopic. Baroness Thatcher might be unwell but she’s not potty. There’s no insight gained from the flashbacks which can’t be gained from press clippings, so it’s not clear why she’s reliving her public life.
Thus, I have a theory about this film which makes it more coherent.
It’s not about Thatcher.
There are clues throughout the film which suggest that it’s actually about a dotty old woman who has completely lost her marbles to the extent that she thinks she’s Margaret Thatcher. The film is about how she wipes her real life with false memories generated from articles she’s read about Thatcher.
At the start of the film, ‘Thatcher’ is at the corner shop buying some milk. Does anybody think that Baronness Thatcher buys her own milk? Does anybody think that she’d care about the cost of milk?
But the giveaway is a moment late in the film where ‘Thatcher’ sees the real Thatcher on the television and declares ‘I barely recognise myself.’
What does this do for understanding the film? Instead of being the humiliation of Baronness Thatcher, it’s the story of a woman who has fabricated all of her memories. She’s not mourning her dead husband; she’s mourning her deranged interpretation of Denis Thatcher. Despite being fake memories, they deeply affect this woman and, as a consequence, those around her (including her daughter who’s taken to wearing a prosthetic nose).
The film is still shit, but at least it’s more than a reason to eulogise a fabricated version of a living woman. It’s an exploration of how the tabloidisation of political figures can impact on the health of the mentally unstable.