In reviewing the biopic “The Iron Lady” about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, critic A.O. Scott asks an interesting question. Despite Meryl Streep’s “technically flawless” portrayal of Thatcher, the film includes only a “vague and cursory treatment of her political career,” he says. “Would the life of a male politician be rendered this way? Is this an unfair question?”
No, and no. But is that the wrong way to portray a leader’s life? The answer is no, again.
I saw “The Iron Lady” this weekend, when it was released nationally, and also admired Streep’s impeccable performance. She manages to embody Thatcher’s steely intelligence, supreme confidence and indomitable will with aplomb, whatever you may think of the controversial leader herself. As an old and frail Thatcher looks back on her life, she reflects on her family, the prejudice she confronted as a pioneering woman in British politics and the world events that shaped her premiership — all with a brilliance that makes Streep, the actress, invisible.
But I didn’t question the reappearing figure of her dead husband, Denis Thatcher (played by Jim Broadbent). While her hallucinations of him could have been fewer and farther between, and while I agree with Scott that a film about a male leader would have probably been presented differently, I think it made sense for filmmakers Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan to spotlight Thatcher’s marriage for several reasons.
For one, leadership at that level is a lonely pursuit, particularly for a woman who was reaching such heights for the first time in the 1970s and 1980s. Most leaders turn to their spouses as sounding boards in one way or another. I’d imagine Thatcher, who appears to have had a warm mutually respectful relationship with her husband, a businessman she married when she was 26, turned to hers even more than others. “Being Prime Minister is a lonely job,” she has said. “In a sense, it ought to be: you cannot lead from the crowd. But with Denis there I was never alone. What a man. What a husband. What a friend”. My guess is the films about male leaders that don’t mine this critical relationship are the ones missing the point.
Second, I didn’t feel that her political career got a “vague and cursory treatment.” Could there have been more detail about what happened between her first campaign loss, in 1950, and her first election to parliament, in 1959? Could there have been more episodes, like that about the Falkland War, featuring the crises she dealt with as prime minister? Sure. But to really portray the life of a leader, the directors needed to do more than just depict the news events that crossed her desk. They needed to illustrate the whole person: by what she gave up in order to pursue her career (her relationship with her children feels cold and distant), by the incredible support she had from her husband (a rarity then as well as now), and by the team dynamics and the strict and unyielding management style (one of the things that ultimately led to her resignation) that defined her leadership.
If I had any complaints, it would be that I wished the movie had more of the latter, not less. One of the best scenes in the movie has her giving one of her deputies, Geoffrey Howe, a complete dressing down for minor errors such as typos or “sloppy wording” on a meeting’s agenda. In this scene and in another—in which her male staff are voicing frustrations as a seamstress reattaches a button to the breast of Thatcher’s dress—she is cutting, belittling and unflinchingly harsh in her assessment of team members she felt were willing to go soft on her principles.
Could we have had less Broadbent and more color on how she led? Perhaps. But to create a narrative that does not include the context of her life—what she gave up, who provided her counsel, and how her premiership was different than those of the men who came before her (as well after)—would be the wrong depiction, too. The legacy of a leader of Thatcher’s status is formed not just by the decisions about trade unions or foreign affairs she made, but by the person who is behind them.
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