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Movie Discussion Resource

The Iron Lady

Engage with culture without disengaging your faith.

posterGenre: Biography/drama
Rating: M(mature themes and violence)
Length: 101 minutes
Starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Richard E Grant
Director: Phyllida Lloyd (‘Mamma Mia’)

Brief synopsis
(see also Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Iron_Lady_%28film%29)

The film depicts former British PM Margaret Thatcher (portrayed brilliantly by Meryl Streep), from her teenage years as a shopkeeper’s daughter to her retirement years. The film covers her decision to enter politics – seemingly against the odds, and then to contest for leader of the Conservative Party. Actual footage is shown newsreel style to demonstrate the tough circumstances in Britain during her time as leader. A large part of the film is depicted from the perspective of Lady Thatcher as a fragile elderly lady enduring dementia. The film relies on flashbacks to depict her earlier life, along with ‘conversations’ with her long dead husband Denis. It is a surprisingly intimate and compassionate portrait of a complex woman who ‘broke the glass ceiling’ and the barriers of gender and class to take on leadership in a male-dominated world.


Questions for discussion

Some general questions might provide enough framework for you to discuss the movie, such as:

  • What stood out as the main points/highlights in the movie?
  • What themes are explored?
  • What assumptions were embedded in the story?
  • What challenged you? What questions did it raise for you?
  • Are there aspects of the story that resonated with your own experience or with the experience of others in a similar situation?
  • Are there biblical or theological themes or characters that come to mind?

The following provides some particular aspects of the movie that could be explored. Feel free to use these ideas as a catalyst for further discussion and reflection.
(Note: ‘MT’ used for Margaret Thatcher)

The film portrays MT as a plucky underdog defying a male-dominated establishment. Her political philosophy was shaped in her teenage years by her father’s beliefs, a proud shopkeeper and Mayor, who tells her: “Never run with the crowd. Go your own way.” She was determined to push her agenda as a leader, even in the face of opposition. MT, as well as many other British PM’s, used a ‘kitchen cabinet’ approach to decision making, where trusted advisors worked through issues and made decisions which were expected then to be rubber stamped by the Cabinet. A leader who is surrounded by ‘yes’ people can ensure that there is rarely a need for robust discussion and ‘fierce conversations’.

How does one balance ‘going your own way’ with working in collaboration with a team for the common good (and national interest)?
How do you reflect on the statement, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely?
To what extent has political life become focussed on the leader rather than the leadership team actively working together?
How do reflect on this statement in light of MT’s style: ‘Authority cannot be bought or sold, given or taken away.’

Authority is about who you are as a person, your character, and the influence you’ve built with people; power erodes relationships. You can get a few seasons out of power, even accomplish some things, but over time power can be very damaging to relationships. We resort to power because our authority had broken down. Power is the degree to which people will accept your decisions without question. Influence is the ability to convince people of the validity of a decision. Using power when influence is needed is usually bad in the long run. Using influence builds power which can then be used very sparingly when absolutely needed’.

I will not die washing dishes
In the end, MT is alone in the kitchen washing a cup.  Ironically, she had told Denis when he proposed marriage to her that she never would become a conventional wife.  She would not die washing dishes.  Indeed, she relied on her husband to maintain the home front in her absence. In her autobiography she wrote: “I could never have been Prime Minister for more than 11 years without Denis by my side.” He saw his role as helping her survive the stress of the job. What are contemporary examples of partners of leaders who either provide caring support to the leader, or significant power in the background that influences policies? Is there a danger in one or the other approach? Does a leader in touch with the ordinary things in life like washing dishes have a better handle on issues affecting people and therefore more capacity for effective public policies and decision making, or do the demands of home life detract from such tasks?

Movie as history, history as movie
Is the movie focussed more on an old lady with dementia remembering her early life, or MT the Prime Minister? Is it satisfying in either of these realms? Is this the Iron Lady we know from history, or a ‘melted down’ version? The British newspaper The Guardian expressed concern that the narrative of the film overlooks Thatcher as “economy destroyer and warmonger” in favour of an “exclusive focus on Thatcher as a woman triumphing against the odds.” The movie overlooks the ‘collateral damage’ of her government policies of deregulation, privatization and globalization, and gives no explanation or background to the events in Britain at the time. The events are simply depicted as newsreel through the memory of an old lady so they are necessarily selective and subjective.

The film also skims over the surface of her much of her own personal and family life, and even her significant academic credentials (her training as a barrister – reflected in her capacity to argue a case strongly, and training as a research chemist – reflected in her forensic attention to detail). The movie lingers on the softer side of MT rather than the iron lady, including the tender dialogue with her long dead husband. When she learns of the deaths of service men after she declared war on Argentina over the Falkland Islands, we see MT struggling to contain her emotions.  The film depicts the “Iron Lady” as a mother writing from the heart rather than the powerfully cold and calculating side of the woman best known to the world. To what extent can such a movie be considered biographical and historical?

Ethical question: a living subject
There are plenty of movies made about people who are still living, but this one has drawn harsh criticism. Streep defended her choice to portray MT’s mental decline while MT was still alive: “Some people have said that it’s shameful to portray this part of a life, that the ebbing end of life is something that should be shut away and that people need to be defended from the images of those suffering from dementia. But I don’t think it’s shameful. I don’t see why it can’t be shown. It’s a film much more about ageing and elements of dementia rather than about an amazing prime minister.” What ethical questions might be considered when making a movie about a ‘living subject’?

The Falklands: the untold story
The famous economist Milton Friedman observed that “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change”. Once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the “tyranny of the status quo”, and to embed free market ideas into the society. The Falklands war in 1982 served such a purpose for Margaret Thatcher: the disorder resulting from the war allowed her to crush the striking miners and to launch the first privatisation frenzy in a western democracy. There are multi-layers in Government decision making, some of which are public, and much of which is hidden. The movie depicts MT in Churchill mode, fighting for what is Britain’s property, rather than an opportunist and strategist seeking to establish free market ideas and in the process to crush the striking miners. How do we tell history to reflect multi-layers such as this? Are there other examples?

MT says of her aging reflection, “I don’t know who she is.” As people are living longer, dementia has become one of the issues of ageing. In what ways does the film contribute insights about ageing and dementia, and how does it resonate (or not) with your own experience with family and friends?

Thoughts are powerful
On a visit to a doctor, MT reveals she is more interested in what people think than what they feel.  So, when he asks her what she is thinking, she replies, “Thoughts are powerful, they bring action, and actions over time become habit, and habit becomes character.” In these lines delivered by the ageing MT, we see a woman of conviction that informed her leadership style. What are the strengths of her approach, and what might be the weaknesses of a leader who has less focus on feelings?

Let us have a king….
The ancient Hebrew people demanded to have a king like their neighbouring countries. Yahweh declined to install a king, given the human propensity for corruption. But when the people continue to insist, Yahweh grants their request. The succession of kings turned out to be mainly a flawed group of people who did not serve the interests of their people, and failed to give priority to the poor and marginalised. It is striking to consider examples of leaders in history who begin with good intentions and motives but who succumb to corruption. What examples come to mind? How does the example of Jesus contrast to this corruption and what was his critique of the religious and political leadership of his time? Are there positive models of leadership that come to mind? Is the political process itself somehow corrupting of leaders? How do you reflect on the suggestion that by the time someone is in a position to exercise power, they have been corrupted by the system.

Additional Reading:  http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=29612

© Rev Sandy Boyce 8th January 2012 Pilgrim Uniting Church, www.pilgrim.org.au

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