Film Review: The Iron Lady

Looking at the coverage that The Iron Lady – a biopic of Margaret Thatcher, for those who’ve somehow managed to miss it – has so far inevitably collected, opinion is fittingly divided. Knowing I was going to see it, as it was a friend’s choice as part of her day of birthday events, I’d been following newspaper articles for a while. It struck me that the first of many ironies about the film was that those who were speaking out against the film had almost certainly not seen it. One of the leading character’s repeated points in the film is that feeling has taken precedence over ideas and thinking in modern life (one wonders what she’d have made of this recent article), yet many of those speaking out against the film seemed to be doing so as they ‘felt’ it was inappropriate or wrong. One wonders what the lady herself would have said to them. (Although wondering is something that the film is likely to generate a lot of.)

The first contentious point is its portrayal – in what has to be acknowledged as an acting masterclass of the highest order from Meryl Streep (and I’m not even a fan) – of the former Prime Minister as an ageing dementia sufferer. Publicly admitted for the first time in 2008 by her daughter Carol, it is the ‘publicly’ that bothers some: an article written by Amanda Platell at the time clearly considers that the daughter’s actions are disrespectful. Others have had different viewpoints: an Alzheimer’s Society press release made the point that “By speaking openly about the effects of dementia, we will begin to tackle some of the stigma that still surrounds the condition …” As the child of a (now sadly deceased) dementia sufferer, I’m personally inclined to the latter argument – acknowledging the illness does not diminish the sufferer’s earlier years, and helps those providing the caring by removing the taboo. I was interested to find myself in agreement with Matthew Parris, writing about the film in The Times (article behind The Times paywall), whose view was that her legacy is public property, that the film never mocks or insults, and that “She and her reputation can take it.” (Streep’s portrayal of the behavioural ticks of dementia – the fading in and out of focus, the mixture of clarity and fog, and the slightly bewildered look in the eyes – is also accurate to the point of being disturbing.)

My major problem with the film – which most reviewers seem to have shared – is that it is a stunning performance in search of a purpose. While we see critical events in her life – the influence of her father, the difficulty of an unmarried woman (and a grocer’s daughter, lest we forget) seeking a Conservative seat to adopt her as candidate, marriage to Denis, the image makeover after her decision to run for Party leader – there is a nagging feeling that we are watching a life with the politics largely removed. For a woman who lived and breathed politics, the omission is especially odd. Nor is this the only thing that is strikingly absent: Sir Keith Joseph, Neil Kinnock and Ken Livingstone have somehow vaporised, along with any other female politician and – as Parris also points out – “no man is allowed a look-in as a policymaker.”

If this is a film about iron, it’s about iron will – as its central character spent decades demonstrating in spades. One of the film’s subtly overt ironies is that it allows its audience to see that, even in capable hands, a spade can wind up digging its wielder’s own metaphorical grave. (Given its criticality in triggering her downfall as Prime Minister, the film might also have given a few more seconds of its screen time to Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech. Even dead sheep can have rather sharp teeth.)

These criticisms are, however, of attempting to view the film as a historical record. As Thatcher’s life is seen in flashback, it is also seen as the surfacing memories of a fading and mentally frail woman and the framing device allows for considerable poetic license – the young Denis was actually 10 years her elder, the Miners Strike came after the Falklands War, Thatcher was not a witness to Airey Neave’s assassination. Scriptwriter Abi Morgan (in an article in the Telegraph) has said that the film is “neither a documentary nor a biopic, but a work of the imagination”, although it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that an audience will attend with that in mind. Such is the nature of the central character and her (very public) legacy, that the expectation will be for one or other of the former. And on these grounds, inevitably, the film falls short: any film that is largely “Thatcher without Thatcherism” can do little else.

I saw it with a large group of friends whose ages ranged from 24 to 70: for the older of them, there were subtle references (the price of milk, son Mark’s wayward absences) that were lost on the younger members of the party, who were left wondering more than their elders quite what the film was trying to say or achieve. As one of those elders commented afterwards, a film about Lady Thatcher that lacks the courage of its convictions is surely an irony too far?

Yet even here, some better placed than I may disagree. To return to Matthew Parris’ Times article, he makes the point that:

.. I’d have liked to see a strange contradiction that matters historically reflected more keenly. The real Thatcher was both hesitant and decisive”

Some of the more robust examinations of her period as Prime Minister might share this analysis: examination of the actions rather than the rhetoric reveals a political leader whose own application of Thatcherism was less than consistent. Iron might, as the film shows, rust, but it is also a malleable, ductile metal. That ‘iron lady’ might have been more appropriate than many of us thought at the time. There are yet more ironies. A woman who espoused action rather than debate and posturing and overcame the very real disadvantages of her gender and class might never have reached party leadership (let alone Downing Street – as she herself said publicly at the time, doubting it would ever happen) without, of all things, an image makeover provided by some very wealthy men.

There are both political and life lessons to draw from The Iron Lady if you’re so inclined: that immense resolve can be both a strength and a weakness; that faith in others can be misplaced (for all her doting on Mark, it is daughter Carol who stays loyal); that overcoming the stigma and hurdle of ‘not being one of us’ might inspire you not to apply the same treatment to others once you’ve ascended the slippery pole; that mothers and fathers experience juggling the demands of working life differently. Or even simply that glory years are, for most people, things that we live beyond – and must then live with. (There’s surely an important lesson about the importance succession planning in this life story.) Some of these lessons, however, might depend on greater knowledge of the events of Lady Thatcher’s years in Downing Street than the film will provide.

As someone who was a young undergraduate at the time of the 1979 Election and lived mostly in London working for various public sector bodies (including education quangos) during ‘the Thatcher Years’, the film only hints at a highly politicised era in recent British history. The film succeeded more for me in its portrayal of the fading of memories and the inversion of family relationships that frail old age typically bring: in parts, it’s a surprisingly sensitive film about dementia. As a portrayal of its central character, its fictionalised nature makes judgement difficult: how, in any case, am I to know how truthful it is?

Any portrayal of a public figure who has been so divisive for so long will probably always struggle to satisfy, and the fictionalisation is equally a strength (in allowing the audience to sidestep some of their preconceptions) and an evasion. I’d recommend that you see it – but see it as a magnificent acting performance. If you want to learn interesting lessons in politics, leadership or the story of a ground-breaking woman, you might be better served by the shelves of biographies that have already been published.

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