I was unsure whether I wanted to see The Iron Lady, the biopic of the life of Margaret Thatcher that recently opened at the cinema. There were a number of reasons for this. First, I am not a particular fan of biopics. Even when well done they often seem far too long – did Ray Charles’ life really need nearly 3 hours to be told, or Johnny Cash’s two and a half? Were their lives really as momentous and dramatic as that of Mahatma Gandhi? Harvey Milk was clearly an important person in gaining a degree of mainstream acceptance of homosexuals in US public life and Sean Penn acted his part impeccably, but the story was too thin in itself other than for the importance of what he achieved.
That aside, which I appreciate is partly a matter of taste, I also had a degree of reservation about the subject matter. Partly because, of course, the subject of The Iron Lady is still alive and still, in the UK at least, a highly divisive and emotive character. However, this is not a criticism that was particularly directed at the BBC dramatisation of her early life The Road to Finchley so not the biggest issue. Any biopic will inevitably have some effect of crystallising a particular historical interpretation of its subject’s life so it is at the very least brave to attempt to do that with someone who continues to be alternately revered by some and reviled as the continuing cause of present national woes by others. Recently there has been a degree of public debate over whether Baroness Thatcher ought to receive a State Funeral when she dies. This ‘debate’ has unearthed any number of people willing to express the tasteless hope that she died as soon as possible and the glee with which this news would be greeted.
I also had personal reasons for being uneasy about watching the film. As regular readers will be aware I tend to support the Conservatives. However, this does not necessarily mean, contrary to what some might think, blindly revering Thatcher! Although, for some, any position other than unconditional hatred amounts to the same thing!
I was only just 18 when she was forced to step down from being Prime Minister. I remember the student indignation when the steward at college put the flag at half-mast when she resigned. But, having been brought up in rural Cambridgeshire, I had been a long way from experiencing much of the impact of her policies in the 1980s. It wasn’t that life had been particularly easy for me during those years – my father experienced a long spell of unemployment in the mid 80s as his industry (merchant navy) changed from being a highly paid one dominated by British shipping lines that had been going since the imperial pomp of Victorian times to one where, almost overnight the lines shut up shop and reflagged their ships in benighted places like Liberia and Panama to benefit from looser regulation, taxation and worker protection. My parents had done reasonably well out of the property booms but my mother then went on to be badly hit by the high interest rates that were the hangover to the boom engineered by Nigel Lawson for the 1987 general election, not really recovering until after Tony Blair’s second general election victory.
Nevertheless I went!
I hadn’t read about the film beforehand so the first shock was that the film is played in flashback from the perspective of the elderly Baroness of today, suffering from Alzheimer’s and hallucinating conversations with her dead husband Denis. I don’t know whether to any extent this is representative of her actual current physical or mental state or what her or her family’s reaction to this portrayal is. It left me a little queasy as, even as someone who won’t be figuratively dancing on her grave when she goes, it came across as a little too close to mawkishness and seeking human sympathy as special pleading. It was generally excellently played by Meryl Streep, I quickly banished my initial comparison with Catherine Tate’s foul-mouthed granny character, but still it seemed unnecessary other than to provide a dramatic device for telling the story.
Perhaps it is one of the features and drawbacks of biopics that there has to be some elision of the complexities and controversies to make a drama with a suitable arc and manipulation of the audience’s sympathies in this way. A similar thing was done in The King’s Speech where only recently did I learn that Bertie’s father was also a second son who had unexpectedly and without preparation been thrust into the throne (and also into marrying the bride selected for his deceased
elder brother). In that film, his father appears to be a terrible tyrant bullying him into taking a public role for which he was unsuited. He may well have been such a tyrant, but the reasons for preparing his second son this way while fearing for the unreliability of the heir apparent were clearly more complex and understandable.
Unlike the biopics I mentioned at the beginning, The Iron Lady is a short film. A political career stretching from serving tea to Alderman Roberts’ constituents in Grantham (coincidentally, the train I am writing these words on is just pulling out of Grantham station this very minute!) in the 1940s to her metaphorical defenestration in 1990 is covered in barely over an hour and a half. Naturally this means that there are big gaps and jumps in events and the director chooses episodes to illustrate a particular point or character facet more than to make a point about the event itself. This is not a bad thing and the film generally deals very deftly even with controversial matters. For example, in a very short space regarding the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War, we are told that the ship was sailing away from the battle zone but that there was some evidence that it could be doing this as a decoy, that sinking the ship probably led to the Argentine junta escalating and causing the terrible casualties on HMS Sheffield and that there was a risk that this could have led to the whole British fleet being defeated.
The battle with the unions is dealt with in rather more controversial style, focusing not on the miners strike of 1984 but of the strikes during Ted Heath’s 1970-74 government. This makes some sense in explaining why she, and, it must be remembered, much of the country wanted this battle and, as with the Falklands, to win it.
The film is interesting on the philosophy and motivations behind Thatcher’s rise and also her appeal. At one point, she says that for her politics was about doing things not being someone, as it is today. This chimed with me as a distinction that can be seen in the language used by the current Conservative and Labour leaders(see my take on Cameron and Miliband’s 2011 conference speeches). Whether she did the right things or not, it does help to show the irrelevance of whether people then or now thought she was a heroine or the Machiavel of leftist lore. Reams have been written about whether or not she was a feminist or out women’s rights backwards and I won’t add to that here, but the struggle to be accepted in the boy’s game or politics she faced through to her dominance in the 1980s is often overlooked or underestimated. However, on the basis of the distinction between doing and being, the balance is clearly intended here to be about her doing the things that had been denied to women rather than merely becoming an empowered woman . It probably wasn’t intended as the relevant scenes were almost certainly written, shot and edited before, but there is a contrast between the critical outrage over David Cameron’s supposedly sexist put downs of “calm down dear” and Thatcher’s response to being described as shrill. Perhaps the biopic of Yvette Cooper’s life to be made in 2050 will give a similar real riposte!
There’s a lot more to think about in the film, the constant threat of death and violence from the IRA that manifested itself in the murder of Airey Neave and the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton that could have killed Thatcher and half her cabinet, the way that appearance and presentation make a difference (although I was pleased that the elocution and restyling exercise didn’t go beyond echoing The King’s Speech).
The acting was generally excellent. Streep caught Thatcher’s nuances and change in tone perfectly. The dialogue writing was also good here – I can’t claim any expertise as I only saw Thatcher speak once live when she was talking after dinner at my Inn of Court when I was doing my compulsory dining to qualify as a barrister in 1994 but it didn’t jar. The supporting cast were also well played. In particular Geoffrey Howe was played convincingly by Anthony Head. At the time, in the days before ministers tweeting their reactions to events and personal slights in real time, the public’s view of what went on behind the closed doors of cabinet was limited. Spitting Image gave a feel for what might have been the dynamic, but the humiliation of Howe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back was very well done. It is perhaps a little sad for Head that in only a few years he has gone from playing a youthful Tony Blair-style PM in Little Britain to “dead sheep” Howe, but at least it shows his ability to escape being typecast for a second time after his Gold Blend years!
The one character I had a little difficulty with was that of Denis. From the Private Eye Dear Bill sketches it is quite possible that it was an accurate portrayal of a supportive, G&T and golf-loving private husband. Unfortunately, Jim Broadbent has, for me, played too many such men. It became too much of an amalgamation of Bridget Jones’ dad and his character in Mike Leigh’s Another Year.
In conclusion, it is an excellent and surprisingly enjoyable film that is well worth going to see. Put aside your personal reservations as I did unless you need your demons to stay inhuman.