The purpose of this paper is to examine the historical accuracy and academic worthiness of the 2011 film “The Iron Lady”, a British-American movie that attempts to portray the life and political career of Margaret Thatcher, the longest serving and only female prime minister of the United Kingdom.
First, the paper develops a brief but comprehensive summary of the film. Secondly, it provides a detailed critical analysis of the film from a historical perspective. It examines the historical accuracy of the film, including period (era), personality, events and social political aspects.
Finally, a detailed conclusion is made to show that the film is not only historically accurate, but also an important tool for teaching history in modern classes.
Released in 2011, the film “The Iron Lady” revolves around the life and political career of Margaret Thatcher. The title “Iron Lady” is an adaptation of the nickname given to the former prime minister of Britain owing to her strong character, braveness and ability to trounce male political opponents1.
The film was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, produced by Damian Jones and set in the UK and France.
Much of the events are shown in a flashback style because the film is set in 2008 and attempts to show Thatcher’s life before, during and after her rule.
The film begins by depicting the elderly Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) buying milk from a local shop, with a number of other shoppers who seem not to recognize the former prime minister. She is shown walking back to her house alone, much like any other citizen.
The film then concentrates on the life of Thatcher years after the end of her tenure. It provides evidence of her aging self, the effect of dementia and relationship with other people.
She is depicted the woman who denies the death of her husband Dennis Thatcher. The film makes the audience realize that Thatcher’s memory is fast fading away due to age and dementia.
It is evident that her personality is affected by her former role as a politician and the nation’s leader. For instance, she is unable to differentiate between the present and the past, which indicates that her memory is failing fast2.
Yet, she seems to be neglected by her family, especially her son and daughter. The son, Mark Thatcher, lives away in South Africa, with little contact existing between him and the mother. In addition, her relationship with Carol Thatcher, her daughter, is sometimes strained, making her stay alone most of the times.
The film then uses a flashback style to depict the previous life and career of the former Prime minister. The flashback begins with Lady Thatcher (Alexandra Roach) as a young girl in Grantham, where she is working in the family’s grocery store.
The young woman seems interested in politics, especially her father’s political speeches. It is also evident that the relationship between the young Margaret and her mother is quite poor. The mother is a housewife, a lifestyle that seems less important to the young Thatcher.
In addition, the film shows Margaret’s quest for education as it announces her successful application for Oxford University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education at the time.
After her education, Margaret has to fight hard to break into the Tory Party and win a seat in the British House of Commons, especially because males dominate the party as well as other political fields3. Among other things, Margaret is surprised by the proposal for marriage that Dennis Thatcher makes.
In addition, she has to fight hard to fit as a “woman” MP and later as a secretary for education following her appointment by Edward Heath, the British Prime Minister between 1970 and 19744. In addition, her close relationship with Airey Neave and campaigns for conservative party leadership is depicted.
Historically, the film ‘The Iron Lady’ revolves around the major events that happened during Thatcher’s time in office. Soon after taking the position, Thatcher has to deal with a number of challenges.
For instance, the rising rate of unemployment in Britain challenges her to take tight measures, including strict monetary policies and a tight budget, which was made in 19815. The film also shows her role in calming rioters in the Brixton protests of 1981 and the miners’ strike of the mid 1980s.
In the subsequent years, her economic policies became effective, with the country enjoying a decade of economic boom. It also shows her attempted assassination in the 1984 bombings at the Grand Hotel.
The film also depicts Thatcher as a strong and determined character during Britain’s conflict with Argentina over the Falklands, which resulted in a war between the two countries. Her leadership led to Britain’s victory and eventual occupation of the disputed Islands.
However, towards the end of the 1980s, the film reveals a number of problems affecting her leadership. Her approach to a number of issues, relationship with her cabinet and response to criticism have changed significantly. She has changed her attitudes towards the public and her officers.
For instance, she rants at the members of her cabinet and refuses to acknowledge that the Community Charge is not good, despite the citizens’ fury reactions. Eventually, Geoffrey Howe, her deputy prime minister, resigns after humiliations in office.
Towards the end of the story, she agrees to resign and assumes a low profile. Twenty years later, the film shows the aging Thatcher struggling with her dementia. She seems to have paid a heavy price for her role as a politician and the hard decisions she had made.
It is evident that a big part of the storyline in the film is in line with the actual historical events that took place in Britain, especially during Thatcher’s tenure in the House as well as 10 Downing Street. First, the film shows the young Thatcher developing interest in politics and signs of public life.
The film intended to show that Thatcher, then known as Margaret Roberts, took much from her father. Alfred Roberts, the father, was a grocery owner, preacher and politician.
He was a good public speaker and made several political speeches when Margaret and her sister Muriel were young. Roberts vied for the Granham mayor seat and won in 1945 but lost his alderman position in 19526.
The film also follows the actual story by portraying the young Margaret as an outstanding student. Margaret Roberts achieved excellent grades in history at Huntingtower Road Primary School, eventually wining a scholarship at Kesteven and Grantham High Schools.
Her grades improved in high school, which saw her acquire a scholarship to study chemistry at the Oxford University, where she specialized in X-Ray Crystallography.
Secondly, the film depicts Thatcher’s political and public life. For example, it follows the social events of 1940s and 1950s, when only few women would dare challenge males in almost all political positions.
Margaret was not a dynamic public speaker, yet she gave straight and fearless answers when challenged in the media and political rallies.
In fact, she also attracted the media as the youngest person to vie for the Dartford Member of Parliament in 1951. Although she did not win, she was able to reduce the political might of the labor party by a large margin.
Furthermore, the film highlights the actual economic situation in Britain in 1960s and 1970s, when the ruling Labor Party had been losing its popularity. She was of the opinion that reduced taxation was an important incentive to increase human efforts and commitment to work.
Moreover, she supported the idea of legalizing abortion, criminalization of hare coursing and decriminalization of male homosexuality. However, she supported capital punishment and strict laws on divorce7.
In fact, most of the political meetings, rallies and other debates outside and inside the House of Commons are depicted to be male-dominated, a fact that was supported by the 20th century history of Britain.
When Edward Heath took power in early 1970s, Thatcher’s political career was enhanced because she was successively promoted from one position to another. For instance, she was promoted from a shadow cabinet minister to a full secretary of state for education and science.
After Heath’s term in office ended in 1975, Thatcher became the leader of opposition in parliament. She expressed a fierce critique of the Government’s approach to foreign affairs.
In particular, she was vocal in criticizing the Soviet Union for its policies that were only aimed at challenging Britain, the US and their allies throughout the world. For instance, she gained the title “Iron Lady” when Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) newspaper criticized her comments on the USSR.
This was reaction to her speech in Kensington Town Hall, where she had accused the Russians for “putting guns ahead of butter” while Britain and her allies were “putting everything before guns”. This scathing attack is also depicted in the film, providing evidence of its reliability as a historical and teaching material.
Perhaps one of the strongest evidence that the film was set on the actual historical events in Britain is the depiction of economic situation of Britain in 1970s, which led to a decreasing popularity of Labor Party and its regime. The economic situation was bad, the country’s economy was lagging and facing possible crisis.
James Callaghan, the Labor Prime Minister, announced that there was no need for a general election, which only increased public fury and popularity of Conservative party. By 1978, the national economy had declined, with inflation rising significantly. The rate of employment was declining and prices were increasing.
These events contributed to the popularity of Thatcher, who was then seen as the most probable candidate for the top seat. In addition, she was seen as the most promising person to provide an alternative leadership, following the long dominance of male prime ministers8.
Britons were looking for a new blood in power. They wanted a government that would provide alternative leadership by addressing social and economic problems. People were willing to see a different person, perhaps even a different gender in power.
Thus, it was not a surprise that Thatcher won the 1979 general elections. The film concentrates on these events, which increases its credit as a material for education and source of historical information.
Nevertheless, the film made some few exaggerations and omissions, which amount to historical inaccuracies. For instance, the film depicts Thatcher saying goodbye to Airey Neave a few minutes before he was assassinated. In fact, it suggests that security officers held her back.
This is not historically correct because Thatcher was not present in Westminster when the event took place. In addition, the film exaggerates the nature of gender imbalance in the House of Commons in 1950s and 1960s. For example, it fails to show that a few other female MPs were present.
Again, this amounts to historical inaccuracy because there were about 19 female MPs during Thatcher’s time as a Conservative MP.
Moreover, it is worth noting that the film erroneously shows Michael Foot, the Labor leader, criticizing Thatcher for authorizing invasion of the Argentinean forces in the Falklands in 1982. In history, Foot was one of the labor MPs who supported the military action against the Argentinean military Junta.
In conclusion, it is evident that most of the storyline in the film “The Iron Lady” attempts to follow the actual life of Margaret Thatcher.
Despite the few exaggerations and omissions developed to increase the entertainment aspect of the story, the film is recommended as a teaching material for history, political science and international relation studies.
Campbell, John, Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady (London: Vintage Books, 2013), 304-369.
Morgan, Kenneth O, Britain since 1945: The People’s Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 423-488.
The Iron Lady, DVD, Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. 2011. London, UK: 20th Century Fox, 2011.
1 The Iron Lady, DVD, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (2011; London, UK: 20th Century Fox, 2011).
2 The Iron Lady, DVD, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (2011; London, UK: 20th Century Fox, 2011).
3 John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady (Jonathan Cape, 2013), 324.
4 Campbell, 327
5 Kenneth Morgan, Britain since 1945: The People’s Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 436.
6 Campbell, 336
7 Campbell, 388
8 Campbell, 873