The Right Horrible Lady

The producers of The Iron Lady need not have spent a penny on publicity for their biopic of Margaret Thatcher. I’m actually sick of reading about it, and her, in the newspapers, and seeing it, and her, on the TV. Whether it’s right-wing commentators wailing about the impropriety of showing Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, in her amnesiac dotage (“They should have waited until she’s dead!” they cry, which is surely just as disrespectful to the old dear), or left-wing commentators complaining that the film in some way deifies Thatcher (Michael White was on BBC Breakfast yesterday, saying, “It’s not a political film at all,” by which he meant it wasn’t left-wing.) I saw a preview of The Iron Lady a few weeks ago, and I’ve had time to ruminate. (The screening was delayed while we film critics waited for the BBC’s Nick Robinson to turn up – it was clearly a must-see for political journalists who don’t usually go and see films.)

I’m afraid think it’s a deeply underwhelming film, saved by the central performances. As I near the end of The Path To Power, Margaret Thatcher’s second memoir, I fancy myself as something of a Thatcher scholar – I’ve certainly been immersed in the fine detail of her, yes, path to power, and know something of the way her mind worked.

That we’re looking here at the work of talented writer Abi Morgan (The Hour, Shame, Sex Traffic) makes it all the more disappointing. But she and director Phyllida Lloyd set themselves an impossible task: to tell a major political figure’s life story in 105 minutes. It simply cannot be done in any meaningful way. Dramatically, I applaud the conceit of presenting the story in flashback from the dementia-encroached dotage of the octogenarian Lady Thatcher, where she conducts conversations with her long-dead husband Denis, played by Jim Broadbent. I could have watched 105 minutes of these two fine actors bouncing off each other as a devoted old couple, one of whom just happened to once run, and ruin, the country. But alas, the dotage is merely a device to frame endless reconstructions of the dramatic bullet-points of Thatcher’s career, from Grantham schoolgirl to ousted PM.

So, we get the Miners’ Strike, and the Falklands, and the “Special Relationship” with Ronald Reagan, and the Poll Tax riots, and so on, and so on, each one neatly condensed into one or two scenes – although Reagan only appears, dancing with her, in a montage, and we get nine years condensed into about a minute of newspaper headlines and newsreel. The bullet points are mostly ably enough presented, and the all-star cast means you never get bored (“Look, it’s Richard E Grant/Anthony Head/Roger Allam/Iain Glen/John Sessions!” “He must be playing Jim Prior/Michael Hesletine/Gordon Reece/John Nott/Francis Pym!”), but it’s all a bit history-by-numbers. BBC4 has made this kind of biopic its stock in trade, and yet, its own stab at Thatcher, The Long Walk To Finchley, with Andrea Riseborough, wisely concentrated on just one period of her life and stayed focussed. This, though, is essentially a film aimed at the international market – after all, Thatcher is a global icon, like it or not – and it leaves nothing to chance or subtlety. Because it has Meryl Streep in the central role, it has instant Hollywood appeal, and may yet win her a handbagful of awards. She’s hugely entertaining, although as Peter Bradshaw notes in the Guardian, it is not much more than a brilliant impersonation. She’s worked hard to get the voice and the mannerisms right, but Thatcher was an impenetrably poised and self-made public figure, so when you do a good impression, it’s of a kind of media construct anyway.

What The Iron Lady doesn’t do is explain why Thatcher was Thatcher. It makes a lot of capital out of the glass ceiling, which she comprehensively smashed, and has fun with shots of her as the only woman in the Commons, the only pair of high heels, the only blue hat etc. There’s no doubting the self-belief it took to put up with all that shit, and Thatcher can be objectively admired for becoming the first Western leader who wasn’t a man. But if the rather simplistic film is to be believed, she turned the bullying she experienced as a young, female MP on its head and simply bullied the men around her once in power. The more of her book I read, the more convinced I become that she was a megalomaniac, but one driven not by vanity, or revenge, but by pure dogma. Her hatred of socialism – or “statism”, “collectivism”, “federalism”, any  number of “ism”s – is in her bone marrow, and if she despises the men around her, it’s because they do not share her extremism, or are not prepared to see it through to fruition. She has no time for moderates, whatever their gender. She adored Denis, after all, and he was a man.

But hey, as Michael White said, it’s not a film about politics. It’s about an old lady looking back over her life – a life that just happened to involve selling off council houses and going to war in the South Atlantic and destroying the unions. I was deeply offended by the bit where her close friend and ally Airey Neave is killed by an INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) car bomb in 1979. Thatcher was, if I remember rightly from the book, in her Finchley constituency when she heard the news. In The Iron Lady, she is in the same underground car park at the Commons, the last person to speak to him before he drives off, and she is seen running up the ramp to where his car sits in flames, Hollywood style, not quite in slo-mo, but it may as well have been. It’s a disgrace to play with real events in this way; far more offensive than making a film about an old, demented lady before she’s dead, it uses the actual death of a man to make her life seem just that little bit more dramatic than it was. I’m surprised Morgan and Lloyd didn’t have Thatcher personally pulling Norman Tebbit’s wife from the wreckage in Brighton.

I think I understand Margaret Thatcher much better now than I did at the time, thanks to her book. (I was certainly too naive and ill-educated to understand her in 1979, when The Path To Power ends and The Downing Street Years begins.) This film, if anything, subtracts from that understanding. It recasts her as a fearful battleaxe and a quasi-feminist warrior, neither of which helps to explain why, under her Premiership, this country was transformed over 11 years into the I’m-all-right-Jack, shop-your-neighbour, free-market, property-obsessed, credit-addicted, money-motivated, privatised, sold-off-to-the-highest-bidder, de-unionised nation of on-our-bikes, aspirational, apparently middle class “entrepreneurs” in a society that we were told doesn’t exist, and where if you use still the bus after the age of 26 you should consider yourself a failure (a sentiment that she shared, even if it’s from a quote she never said). Every Prime Minister who’s succeeded her has been in thrall to her in some way. (Good lord, it was Gordon Brown who put forward the idea of a state funeral for her.) That kind of impact goes beyond party politics.

There is a film to be made about Margaret Thatcher, but it would have to be longer than 105 minutes. It took Thatcher two big books to complete her life story up to the mid-90s. These can no more be distilled into a single film than Hubris and Nemeis by Ian Kershaw, which only cover the life of a man who died aged 56. (This is why Downfall was so successful: it took place over ten days.)  Not that I’m comparing her to Hitler.

For a concise review of the film, here’s my Radio Times review.

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5 thoughts on “The Right Horrible Lady

  1. What did you think of The Long Walk To Finchley Andrew? I thought it was fantastic. I’m a big fan of biopics which focus on one period like that one did. To me it told me more about her than a full 105 minute greatest hits could. The scene with the Cabinet where she has lost of sense of the meaning of what her decisions are doing but just keeps insisting that ‘we must not show weakness’ was wonderful and stark.

    It’s the David Simon quote about drama for me – ‘you’ve got to understand the unremarkable before anything at all can seem remarkable’ – and that’s why the single point in life films work well for me.

  2. I greatly enjoyed Margaret, the Lindsay Duncan biopic. Highly amusing. Though I had to watch it twice; the first time was consumed by recognising the actors and the people portrayed.

    I also enjoyed the radio play of Shirley Porter’s gerrymandering.

    I trust Tory activist Robinson behaved himself at the screening, unlike Paul Reubens.

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