Re-Presenting British Politics

Inspired by the current uk election, OISÍN WALSH compares  depictions of two titans of british history in The Queen and The Iron Lady.


As the UK’s latest General Election is under way, there is a high possibility of Theresa May leading the nation for another four years, taking the reins on what will undoubtedly be one of the country’s most historic events: the UK’s departure from the European Union. The Prime Minister who orchestrates this process will almost certainly be immortalised in cinema at some stage in the not too distant future, likely portrayed by some high profile actor. Two such performances in the recent past which have received widespread critical acclaim are Helen Mirren’s turn as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006) Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011). While these incredibly talented actors unearth a solid foundation for a performance from these real life political figures it is worth examining how the differing depictions of leaders of the past affect our perspective on today’s political landscape. Do they have an impact on how we view our politicians and as a result do they influence our political leanings and how we vote? These representations inform us about the political history of Britain and may determine who people choose to lead them through what May has predicted will be “the most challenging that Britain has faced in (her) lifetime”.

Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister for a number of important events in British history, for example, the Miners’ Strike and the Falklands War. Her famously stubborn and headstrong attitude earned her the nickname, “The Iron Lady”. She was as popular as she was vilified by the British citizens and remains a divisive political figure to this day. This is why it is unusual that The Iron Lady opts for a more apathetic approach in depicting Thatcher. This was noted by critics at the time of the film’s release, Roger Ebert stated that “the movie has no opinion”.

I question the wisdom in this Lloyd’s chosen style. If our cultural sources adopt a tone of apathy to political figures of the past, will that affect how we engage with our leaders of today? If the powerful cultural tool of cinema encourages detachment from history will it by default encourage detachment from the political roller-coaster we currently live within? While one can appreciate the director’s attempt to allow the audience to form their own opinion on Thatcher, this choice was not successfully realised. Instead, the film falls flat, creating not an objective representation but an aimless one. Apathy is evidently a rising issue in the UK as it has been recorded that 15.8 million people who were registered to vote, didn’t. Is this high figure a consequence of people becoming disenchanted with politics, losing interest in engaging? A film like The Iron Lady certainly does not encourage its audience to express interest in politics but rather just observe that it happens.

Perhaps here, The Queen triumphs over The Iron Lady. Numerous varied opinions of the Frears’ titular character’s actions are depicted. The Queen offers opportunity to engage and choose a side as opposed to the biopic of Thatcher where no solid opinion of the Prime Minister is offered and so the audience have no real encouragement to join the discussion.

One aspect of The Iron Lady which is effective and beneficial is that it encourages its audience to view politicians as people. Our first image of the lady herself is not in her seat of authority, but as an elderly woman doing that most familiar of things: buying milk in the morning for her breakfast. In this moment, one wouldn’t be able to recognise her as the political juggernaut she is usually presented as. These scenes of Thatcher in her later years, when she is not wielding the power she once possessed, are when the film is at its most engaging. Unfortunately they are soon sidelined, used only to punctuate the emotionally hollow depiction of her rise to, and execution of, power.

The Queen also strives for an element of humanisation but as part of a more gradual process. Frears’ film begins with Tony Blair (performed with charm by Michael Sheen) displaying remarkable anxiety before meeting the Queen as the country’s new Prime Minister, despite the fact that he achieved a landslide victory in the 1997 General Election. Mirren’s Queen enters the film as an intimidating, and enigmatic figure. As the country and the media turn on her she maintains her dignified façade. Only when alone does she give in to emotion. Here we recognise that just because someone has power and privilege does not mean they aren’t not susceptible to the same pain and hurt as everyone else, even the Queen cries. The Queen suggests that perhaps we should not be so quick to allow our voices to join a chorus of hatred, without accounting for the consequences of such a decision.

A central feature of Fears’ film is the growing intrusiveness and influence of the media in modern society. This is first seen in the build-up to Diana’s car accident as she is dogged by relentless paparazzi. The unavoidable power of the media is felt in numerous scenes throughout the film with even the Royal Family being parked in front of their televisions awaiting the latest news reports while their advisors scan through the headlines of the daily newspapers and tabloids. The Queen successfully captures the influence of fear-mongering within the media, showing how the public message can shift from mourning the death of Diana to threatening the end of the British Monarchy in matter of days.

As we delve deeper into the age of the digital the reach of news media is wider than ever with most people being able to access news through their smartphone anywhere and anytime. The Queen should act as an important reminder that we cannot allow the news to dictate our feelings and bait us into a mob mentality which serves only to incite fear. This is clear in Frears’ film as the animosity toward the royal family grows in the days following Diana’s death. Prince Charles begins to fear an attempt on his life. We should recognise the volatile and often dangerous influence of the media on our lives and insure that we inform ourselves about situations and events before allowing our opinions to be publicly vocalised.

These two films are important as they have an effect on the way wider society views shared history. This helps build an understanding and contextualisation of the politicians who lead us today. The Iron Lady is flawed in its promotion of an unhealthy cynicism towards politicians. Lloyd’s film does however encourage its audience to recognise the humanity of their leaders. The Queen warns us of the dangers of mob mentality when fuelled by the media oversaturation. These films shape our understanding of history and therefore influence our reaction to the politics of the present. These films inform us, not only about the figures they depict but exhibit how they have been remembered by the following generations. The Queen is represented as a dedicated leader, devoted to her country who restrains her emotion as she believes this is what her people wanted in their monarch. While the Iron Lady appears as a figure who struggled to obtain the high seat of power which she held for 11 years and fought hard to be respected by the citizens of the UK. How do these fictional representations compare with the reality of the current Prime Minister Theresa May? Or even the Labour hopeful Jeremy Corbyn? Should we look to representations of the past to help us decide what sort of leader we want? We should be encouraged by these films to engage with our contemporary politics, inform ourselves lend our voice and our opinion to the discussion. Even if we are unable to vote in this upcoming election, the outcome will affect us.