The Iron Lady: “You can Rewind it, but you can’t change it”

Watching a video compilation of family home movies – a movie within the movie The Iron Lady – the ghost of Denis Thatcher says these words to Margaret. The Iron Lady is the latest in the genre of films about the elderly people who attempt to deal with this sad reality. The movie argues that, politically, there was little Margaret Thatcher would want to have changed. She set out to make a difference and, by God, she did. She had no regrets about her key decisions, for example going to war over the Falklands, confronting the miners, or privatizing much of the public sector.

Her political regrets were over lives lost in military conflict (the soldiers killed in the Falklands War) or political conflict (IRA assassinations, in particular her supporter Airey Neave). At a personal level, while she made clear to Denis when accepting his marriage proposal, that she would not be a typical housewife, the movie still suggests some regret that her political career so dominated her family life.

Nonetheless, for both the historical figure and the protagonist of the movie, Edith Piaf’s “je ne regrette rien” would be the personal anthem of choice.

The Iron Lady thus invites comparison with two overtly political films about aging, Errol Morris’s documentary on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, and the superb Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Kuzuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize winning The Remains of the Day. In both, the protagonists express deep regret. In McNamara’s case, despite his successes as a senior executive modernizing Ford Motors and as Secretary of Defense controlling the hyper-aggression of the generals, his name remains eternally linked to the futility of the Viet Nam War. In The Remains of the Day, the fictional protagonists all have their regrets, Lord Darlington over his embrace of appeasement, and the butler Stevens over his inability to escape the personal and psychic imprisonment of domestic service.

Movies about regret have an intellectual and emotional appeal. Characters can in their minds replay the past and imagine what would have happened had they made different decisions. We in the audience all have regrets about some of the choices we made, and watching characters in movies express regret and show the sadness that comes from regret provides identification with and validation of our own emotions as well as a measure of schadenfreude.

A triumphal movie about an elderly person who expresses no regret would be unlikely to facilitate much connection between protagonist and audience. Imagine Errol Morris trying to make a movie based on an extended interview with Margaret Thatcher. Despite Morris’s interlocutorial skill at both expressing sympathy for and challenging his interviewees, Margaret Thatcher would be far less interesting than Robert McNamara. Morris might show headlines and photos alluding to her controversial ministry, just as he did for McNamara, but he would not elicit the moments of dismay, regret, self-doubt, and sadness that he elicited from McNamara. Likely, all he would have received was a shrill scolding.

The creators of the Iron Lady have necessarily taken a different tack in their attempt to humanize and ironize Margaret Thatcher. They have seized upon the fact that she now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Thus, the movie depicts her as both physically frail and intellectually confused, suffering from the failure of her short-term memory as well as hallucinating through the entire movie about the presence of her deceased husband Denis. The interesting mental mechanism that is evoked is how a person suffering from Alzheimer’s can still channel into her memories, mainly of her triumphs and occasionally of her regrets. The one late life victory Thatcher achieves – only with considerable prodding from her daughter and her handlers – is to divest herself of Denis’ clothing and personal effects and finally to convince herself that he is dead.

At its core, The Iron Lady is a movie about Alzheimer’s disease rather than a movie about politics. The political recollections are too fleeting to deal adequately with her controversial ministry. The movie attempts to depict the mechanisms of a mind remembering, of a mind failing to remember, and of a mind hallucinating to replace the present with the past. It also tries to show what of her character remains and what is lost.

Meryl Streep has received accolades for her portrayal of Thatcher. It has two aspects: the mimicry of the voice, facial expressions, and bearing of the public figure we all remember, and the creation of a victim of Alzheimer’s who happens to live within the body of the former prime minister. Portrayal of people with disabilities requires believably demonstrating the disability while still communicating the person’s essential humanity. When done well, and two instances that come to mind are Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, the audience will be riveted.

The critic’s consensus is that Meryl Streep has succeeded at doing this here. But the film critics are more knowledgeable about politics than they are about psychology. It would be valuable to hear what gerontologists and psychologists think about The Iron Lady. Do Phyllida Lloyd’s directing, Abi Morgan’s screenplay, and Meryl Streep’s acting ring true? Have they created a clinically realistic version of Alzheimer’s? With the aging of the boomers, the question is an important one. It matters less what the movie says about the actual Margaret Thatcher’s politics than about the character “Margaret Thatcher’s” dementia. If much of what we all think we know comes from the movies, has this movie taught the right lessons?

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