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The Iron Lady – Mrs Thatcher Streeped Bare



Be quiet! And listen.


The Iron Lady – Phyllida Lloyd

Margaret Thatcher was for 15 years in British public life, the eye of calm certainty at the epicentre of a storm of chaotic energy endlessly fed by political events: from the Poll Tax riots; the ineradicable social toxicity of the Miners’ strike; the callous brutality of the IRA campaign; and the Falklands War – Britain’s last colonial hurrah as a lone military power player on the international stage. Mrs Thatcher was the last Prime Minister ever, to actually win a war. And many will forgive her anything for that.

Then and now this uniquely divisive figure generated extreme emotions from a British public rendered almost schizophrenic in their reactions to her: many who hated her politics stifled a guilty admiration for her determination and unbending sense of purpose. She was perhaps the ultimate cross-over politician: with a fervent level of support among many Labour voting working class people; yet arousing a naked personal detestation from many on the right – such as Ted Heath. I always believed, and it depressed me, that the British people would never vote Mrs Thatcher out of office: but that a mixture of jealousy and thwarted ambition reinforced by an institutionalised misogyny amongst her Conservative Party colleagues would bring her down. And so it was.

The radio-active half-life of the Thatcher effect is undiminished as watching The Iron Lady you will hear from the audience both murmurs of approval and heckles of hostility. Examining exactly what it is that explains this phenomenon would have made a fascinating film. The Iron Lady is not it.

That said Phyllida Lloyd’s film has much to recommend it, even for Thatcher-phobes like myself. But it states for us its own deepest flaw: in a telling scene with her doctor monitoring her incipient senility, with typical rapier-like lucidity she contemptuously observes “One of the great problems of our age is that we’re governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Instead of asking me how I feel, why don’t you ask me what I think – that would be interesting.” Just so.

Lloyd completely ignores this insightful dictum: her film is politically anecdotal at best; there is nothing in the whole movie that resembles a coherent political idea let alone a clash of political ideologies – one version of which Mrs Thatcher passionately proselytised. What we see is an emotive but simplistic sound-bite historical tour with more whistle-stops than a film twice the 104 minutes here could handle.

Ignoring therefore her own subject’s stated view; Lloyd contents herself with emotions over thoughts ideas and actions. However on this level the film is affecting, moving and of course powerfully played by the Grande Dame of impersonational character acting – Meryl Streep. It would be churlish not to admit that Ms Streep does with great subtlety and artistic insight bring much more than mere physical accuracy to an at times eerily credible impersonation.

Abi Morgan’s screenplay structure has been criticised, wrongly in my view, for the time-fractured device of an on-going dialogue between the octogenarian Margaret and a long-deceased Dennis as a way into flashbacks of their marriage and the public context within which it was lived out. Cleverly overlapping Dennis actually alive and Dennis alive only in Mrs Thatcher’s failing memory, enables Lloyd to move easily through the narrative she has settled upon. That it is perhaps not the narrative we would like to see is no fault of a quite effective, evocative device.

Jim Broadbent is a perfect foil for Streep as Dennis Thatcher; represented accurately here in the silly arse, John Wells, Private Eye public perception of the man rather than the more substantial, successful businessman he actually was. Olivia Coleman captures well the Jilly Cooperish, jolly horsiness of Carol Thatcher while Thatcher’s only known wilful self-deception – her purblind indulgence of the failings of son Mark who substitutes phone calls for bothering to turn up, is neatly implied.

With verisimilitude defining her approach to her central character, Lloyd is a bit stuck with carrying this through to the rest of the casting. This of course invites the distracting but diverting ‘looks like’ or better ‘doesn’t look like’ party game. A more relevant but disturbing truthfulness in Lloyd’s approach is that she does perfectly capture that insufferable Public School, Oxbridge, born-to-govern suave Establishment chauvinism of not just Mrs Thatcher’s cabinets but most British cabinets – including today’s. We relish here on screen, as at the time through sublime Spitting Image latex, the priceless and justified contempt with which Thatcher threw her Grantham cat amongst this smug, complacent bunch of pigeons.

Streep’s performance has been so extensively praised that it is mere cliché to describe it as extraordinary. She is most effective by far, as the elderly woman, adding a hint of Thatcherite steel to the timeless pathos of age, fading powers and memories of past triumphs. Here the ‘stoop’, missing from her portrayal of the extraordinary handbag-clutching forward-toppling scuttle of Prime Minister Thatcher’s public movements, is convincingly evident.

The Iron Lady is therefore well worth a visit. My hunch is that both Lloyd and Morgan have an underlying interest in the impact of the Thatcher phenomenon upon the perception of women from a feminist perspective which their subject would have little patience with. It is certainly true that Mrs Thatcher’s ‘senility’ as portrayed is in a very benign form: mostly amounting to a bit of forgetfulness and the anticipation, rather than realisation of genuine dementia. This defuses much of the ‘inappropriate’ criticism the film has attracted. However, if the real Mrs Thatcher is as systematically lucid as Morgan, Lloyd and Streep portray her I think she would wonder why they didn’t listen to their own apposite words about the priority of ideas and actions over emotions.

What is the secret of the paradoxical cross-over Thatcher effect? It is rooted I think in fundamental aspects of her character: she had the intellect to analyse complexity; an instinct to distil it into a convincing simplicity; and the arrogant single-mindedness of leadership to implement action based on that simplicity – come what may. These are leadership qualities Tony Blair shared.

However Mrs Thatcher had something Blair conspicuously lacked: a straight-talking, no-nonsense direct courage of conviction, not always justified, but clear to colleagues, opponents and electorate alike. What you saw was what you got: no dissembling, equivocation or endless Blair-like casuistry. Like it or hate it, Mrs Thatcher’s great quality, almost unique in modern politics, was to be absolutely clear what she meant, what she believed in; and utterly consistent in her consequent actions. She said what she thought: and did what she said. She was the first and perhaps the last politician in my lifetime to be clear enough to be accountable for her actions; however prejudiced or wrong-headed they often may have been. While Blair parsed his honour with endless dissembling semantics; Thatcher told it as she saw it and stood by her judgment – come what may. Many of us hated where she took us – but at least we knew where we were.

It is perhaps therefore, not so contradictory that many people preferred Mrs Thatcher’s blunt honesty to Mr Blair’s devious duplicity. Ideology aside.

Personally I hope Streep doesn’t get the Oscar: though forced into it by her subject and the context, this is a highly theatrical form of acting founded upon the meticulous artifice of make-up and impersonation. There is also an increasing ‘grandness’ in Streep herself that emerges not only in her performances but in off-screen interviews. However helpful these qualities are in this case – with some admirable moments of exception – they are the very antithesis of that unique subtlety and intangibility of great screen acting. In my view Rooney Mara’s portrayal of another extraordinary female character, Stig Larssen’s Lisbeth Salander is a performance with more instinctive inner resonance than Streep’s Margaret Thatcher.

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