The Iron Lady explained

Is Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher biopic worth all the fuss?


If Alison Jackson teamed with Gyles Brandreth to make a musical of the life of Margaret Thatcher, it might look and sound like ‘The Iron Lady’, a loud, showy run-through of the life of Britain’s first female prime minister.

The film, written by Abi Morgan (TV’s ‘The Hour’) and directed by Phyllida Lloyd (‘Mamma Mia!’), opened in Europe in January and will be in cinemas across Bahrain this month.

It’s bound to provoke debate, angry criticism and heartfelt defence and on that level, it’s possible to admire ‘The Iron Lady’: I’m for anything that connects cinema with the real world and gets people talking about the dialogue between the two.

But, having caught a screening of the film, it’s hard not to see ‘The Iron Lady’ as dangerously uncritical of Thatcher and, perhaps worse than that, dramatically unadventurous and weak. Yes, Meryl Streep’s physical presence and voice are spot on and deserve praise, but the film runs with supportive clichés about the former PM and packages the whole thing as camp fun. That might work for a musical based on the songs of Abba. But for the life of one of the UK’s most controversial leaders, whatever you think of her politics, it’s insulting to all involved –and, above all, to us.

So, what does the film cover? One of its problems is that it tries to cram in everything and, in doing so, recalls little with any depth. ‘The Iron Lady’ is set in the present as Thatcher, now 86, shuffles about her London home.

Her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) is dead but appears to her regularly as a vision, giving her someone to share her thoughts with. It’s a creaky device, but not as creaky as using old home movies to flash back to holidays with the kids. Flashbacks are the film’s driving force and we see snippets of moments in Thatcher’s life, from working in her father’s shop as a child and losing her first election in 1950 to, as prime minister, deciding to defend the Falkland Islands in 1982 and squabbling with her cabinet.

Peter Morgan has shown in ‘The Queen’ and his other work that a writer can boldly turn historical reconstruction into argument and adopt factual territory as an arena for ideas. By imaginatively dramatising the private life of a public figure, a dramatist can suggest a version of the truth and offer opinions to be wrestled with. Think of the scene in ‘The Queen’ of the monarch having a run-in with a stag in the Highlands. We know there’s no evidence for this. We know it’s invention. And it makes us think more deeply about the subject.

There’s no such scene in ‘The Iron Lady’, or at least in the flashbacks of her life as a politician. Instead, we encounter a series of ‘greatest hits’ from her career, begging the question: what’s the point?

Abi Morgan’s script is very nervous of supposition beyond scenes of Thatcher now, tired and half senile. We see her interacting with her daughter, her housekeeper and the ghost of her husband, but little of import is discussed or suggested in these scenes. They leave us only two questions to chew. Has Thatcher’s mind gone? And can she bear to throw out her husband’s clothes? You have to assume that, as burning issues, they’re of limited interest.

Good drama offers an alternative view of the world, or an alternative way of seeing what’s in front of your eyes. This does neither. It reminds us of what we know.

Unless, that is, we know nothing or little about Thatcher, which is why the film might be of more interest to audiences outside of Britain.

Anybody familiar with the UK nightly TV news between 1979 and 1990, or who reads a paper, might find that ‘The Iron Lady’ talks down to them from a great height.

The film’s attitude to history is sloppy too. Thatcher’s memories – the flashbacks – appear chronological, but one montage mixes footage of demonstrations by miners in 1984 with a flash of the Brixton riots in 1981. Perhaps the point is that they were all the same to Maggie – but you suspect it’s a case of the filmmakers thinking the difference between a riot and demo is negligible when it comes to kicking up a storm visually.
And what of the politics? Put it this way: it won’t trouble Thatcher’s admirers. A section on the Falklands presents her as Churchillian – on the side of the military and refusing to give way to appeasers. More generally, ‘The Iron Lady’ depicts Thatcher as a progressive warrior in the class and gender war of the late twentieth century.

‘Never run with the crowd, Margaret, go your own way,’ her father tells her, and soon we see her fighting for her place in smoky, male-dominated backrooms.

No doubt there will be many who take umbrage or offence at the idea of Thatcher as a feminist heroine or a friend of the working man or woman, but at least this element is a provocation. There’s an argument to be swallowed or spat out.

So, what are we left with? A storming impersonation by Streep. Some pleasing high-camp, operatic choreography by Lloyd. And a feeling that a great opportunity has been squandered.

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