How Accurate Is 'The Iron Lady'?

The Iron Lady is a look at the life of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played by actress Meryl Streep. Streep's performance has been winning early praise, but how well does the movie capture what really happened? Robert Siegel talks with political biographer John Campbell. Campbell wrote The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer's Daughter to Prime Minister. This is the final installment of our fact check film series.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. In the new film "The Iron Lady," Meryl Streep gives the kind of performance that makes you wonder why they even bother with competitions for acting awards in years when she's in a movie. The iron lady Streep plays is Margaret Thatcher, the conservative British prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Here she is telling Matthew Marsh, who's playing Secretary of State Alexander Haig, why she will go to war with Argentina, which had just seized the Falkland Islands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IRON LADY")

MERYL STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) We will stand on principle, or we will not stand at all.

MATTHEW MARSH: (as Alexander Haig) But, Margaret, with all due respect, when one has been to war...

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) With all due respect, sir, I have done battle every single day of my life, and many men have underestimated me before. This lot seem bound to do the same, but they will rue the day.

SIEGEL: Meryl Streep is so good, so convincing that her depiction of Margaret Thatcher will likely be the image that most Americans will retain of her, and I say that having worked in London during the years of Thatcher's first government. This week, mindful of the power of cinema as biography, we're running some current biopics past some nonfiction authorities for a round of truth squadding. And joining us today from London is John Campbell, who wrote the biography "The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer's Daughter to Prime Minister." Mr. Campbell, welcome.

JOHN CAMPBELL: Hi. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Thank you for joining us. And we should say first, you were a consultant on this movie. What exactly did you do with it?

CAMPBELL: Well, I never saw the script or anything like that. I wasn't consulted in that level of detail, but they would ask me certain things, what sort of arguments would the conservative opponents of Mrs. Thatcher have used to try to dissuade her from what she was doing, technical little things, like was Denis Thatcher left-handed and things like that. I wasn't heavily involved, but they did run things past me a bit.

SIEGEL: Well, having seen the film, first, big picture, do you think that they essentially got Margaret Thatcher and her times right?

CAMPBELL: I think essentially they did, yes. I think it's a remarkable achievement, both of the writer, Abi Morgan, as much as of the star, Meryl Streep. I think it rings very true as a portrayal of her.

SIEGEL: Now, an American unfamiliar with British politics might assume from the movie that Thatcher was not just the first female prime minister, it looks like she was the only woman in the House of Commons. That's a bit extreme here.

CAMPBELL: That is slightly exaggerated, yes. I mean, there is an aerial picture of her walking in a scene from above with a sea of suited men and one blue-suited woman in the middle of them. The pictures of the House of Commons show no other women at all, which is a slight exaggeration, but it is intended to show how it felt to her. It is her struggle, her battle to assert herself against a lot of patronizing men. So the fact that she felt that the House of Commons was a very male environment is accurately portrayed, even though in fact there were a few other women around.

SIEGEL: I'd like you to explain the significance of the phrase you used in your biography, a grocer's daughter, which is often used in the film. Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer. She ousted a conservative leader, Edward Heath, who was, I gather, the son of a carpenter and a maid. But she wore her middle-classness and her origins rather differently than people had before, and she identified with the experience of her own family, I think, in a way that others hadn't before.

CAMPBELL: Yes. In the early part of her career, she came across as a very much more upper middle class, Tory lady in a hat and pearls. But when she needed to present a new background story for the leadership, she was able to point to the fact that she had been brought up the daughter of a grocer in a small Lincolnshire town and had a very ordinary background, indeed. So she changed her image, and she used what she had learned from her father very skillfully to identify with what is now called middle England.

SIEGEL: Margaret Thatcher is still alive, and the movie is told from her perspective as the bewildered old lady plagued by dementia who's never recovered from the death of her husband, Denis, who's played in the movie by Jim Broadbent. Here's a moment when, in the film, she recalls a rebuke from him that she had put career ahead of family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IRON LADY")

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) Denis, you married someone who is committed to public service. You knew that. And it is my duty...

JIM BROADBENT: (as Denis Thatcher) Don't call it duty.

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) It is my duty...

BROADBENT: (as Denis Thatcher) It's ambition that's got you this far...

STREEP: (as Margaret Thatcher) ...and my...

BROADBENT: (as Denis Thatcher) ...ambition. And the rest of us - me, the children - we can all go to hell.

SIEGEL: An imagined relationship, or do you think they've - they're working from many sources there?

CAMPBELL: It's slightly imagined from the hints given in their daughter Carol Thatcher's book and in Margaret Thatcher's own book in a way. I don't think it's unreal. I think Denis - it was a remarkable tribute to Denis that he did as an older man of quite a conservative background allow his wife and encourage his wife to have this extraordinary political career. But I think he did occasionally kick against the pricks. And I think, early on, he had to adjust himself to the fact that she wasn't just an MP. She was going to go all the way to the top.

SIEGEL: You know, there's one glimpse I got of Margaret Thatcher that I've never forgotten. After seeing her in many public occasions - I was at an American correspondents' dinner where she spoke off the record. This is during the time of the Falklands War. And at the beginning of it, she stood up, and then she said, you know, I've been on my feet all day, and kicked her shoes off and then spoke to the group, and came off as a very tomboyish kind of woman, much more approachable and down-to-earth person than I've ever seen and what always struck me as impressions of the queen that she was doing when she spoke publicly.

And I found her a very different person when she was in an off-the-record situation than publicly. I don't know if that squares with any of your experience of her.

BROADBENT: I think that's true. I think she was very careful never to be seen sort of unprepared. She was always in public, perfectly dressed with her hair done and all the rest of it. She gave the impression. It was part of her image, deliberately projected, I think - although that was also the truth - that she was always at work. She never, never really stopped, and she never let herself be seen relaxing.

SIEGEL: She was, of course, the bane of the British left, and her entire domestic program, not to mention her stance toward the Soviet Union, but her domestic program was aimed at weakening the grip of the labor unions on Britain and denationalizing industry. Has she ever been forgiven in England by anyone on the left for her role?

CAMPBELL: Well, it's very paradoxical, of course, because the Labour Party has adopted and accepted everything that she did. She set out to abolish what she called socialism and succeeded. So, I mean, you know, Tony Blair is very much - was very much Mrs. Thatcher's political heir, and she changed the landscape of British politics completely. I mean, before, there was a tribal party system with two parties that were playing in opposite directions like a football match. And she sort of tore that up.

Everyone is now more or less - I mean, the division between the parties is in practice. They have different, you know, rhetorics. They have different traditions. But the difference of policy between them is very, very marginal.

SIEGEL: The battle ever since was for the middle ground and for...

CAMPBELL: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: ...for the center of British life...

CAMPBELL: Yes, yes.

SIEGEL: ...rather than this old (unintelligible).

CAMPBELL: And the center has moved a long way to the right from where it was when she came in.

SIEGEL: John Campbell, thank you very much for talking with us.

CAMPBELL: OK. Thank you very much, indeed.

SIEGEL: Mr. Campbell, who spoke with us from London, is the author of the book "The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer's Daughter to Prime Minister." We were talking about the movie "The Iron Lady" about Margaret Thatcher. It stars Meryl Streep.

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