As a liberal “lefty tosser” (as Boris Johnson might say), I was raised to despise Margaret Thatcher and everything she stood for – the disempowering of the unions, the privatisation of Britain’s rail systems, the Poll Tax, the emphasis of private profit over public service and businesses over people, and the war over the Falklands. However, none of that means I could not appreciate or even enjoy a film about her, because she is a fascinating figure and one of the most significant political forces of the 20th century. Just because you do not agree with someone should not prevent one from engaging with the issues that they raise. Issues around political process and ideology, electoral campaigns, personal loyalty and, yes, feminism are all issues I would have happily engaged with in a cinematic narrative, regardless of what I think about the actual person of Mrs Thatcher.
Viewing the film, therefore, proved an exercise in frustration as every interesting issue is brushed aside by scriptwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd. Margaret’s younger years growing up during the Blitz and involvement with local politics in support of her father’s business are thinly sketched, offering insufficient motivation for her passion and commitment. Her experience in the Conservative Party as a lone woman in a boy’s club is restricted to shots of her shoes and hat, and brief discussions about how she can advance her career and political agenda. Clashes with her family such as husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) over her decision to run for party leader appear and disappear quickly, as are the conflicts she experiences as Prime Minister: the US Ambassador; the opposition; her cabinet; eventually the faction that forces her to resign.
The major problem with The Iron Lady is its flashback structure, as the 80-something Margaret (Meryl Streep) ambles around her home and encounters various figures from her past. As individual scenes, the actual flashbacks are handled well, but they are all over too quickly and we return to the doddering old woman. Her mental deterioration is presented with sensitivity, but Thatcher’s impact upon British life is glossed over far too much. The one standout moment comes when Margaret, as Education Secretary, is confronted by the Labour opposition who deride her for speaking too shrilly. Margaret rises to the challenge with the ringing speech: “If the right honourable gentleman could pay a little more attention to what I am saying rather than how I am saying it, he may receive a valuable education in spite of himself”. Thatcher-hater though I am, I found that scene inspiring and thought the film could embrace the gender politics, making the point that Margaret is a capable politician disadvantaged only by the sexist attitudes of her peers. But the topic does not appear again – when Margaret mentions to the US Ambassador that she “has been at war all my life, sir”, no link is made between the two confrontations with men that could suggest her on-going struggle. I do not entirely agree with Thatcher being a feminist icon, but I understand the position and was caught up with the moment of female challenge to patriarchy. But The Iron Lady abandoned this challenge as quickly as everything else, returning to its light, insubstantial treatment of weighty material.
I try to assess films on what they are, rather than what they are not. It irritates me when critics and viewers complain that the plot, characterisation or dialogue should have done x or y. It is a common complaint about adaptations, sequels, remakes, reboots, and especially historical dramas that exercise dramatic licence over “actual” events. The Iron Lady is historical and probably misrepresents a great many events chronicled in various news reports and parliamentary memoirs – I care not. What is more problematic is the lack of interest in the events on display. JFK, Braveheart and U-571 may play fast and loose with historical records, but their depiction of the events demonstrates an interest in them. As a biopic, The Iron Lady suggests interest in the life of Margaret Thatcher, yet fails to demonstrate this interest time and time again.
An interesting comparison is The Queen, also concerned with recent British political history. The Queen focuses upon the relationship between Elizabeth II and Tony Blair during the furore following the death of Princess Diana, digging into issues such as the role of the monarchy in modern Britain, especially when another royal figure provokes a strong response. Michael Sheen’s role as Tony Blair was overshadowed by the attention and praise showered upon Helen Mirren in her portrayal of Elizabeth II, but he still came across as a sympathetic and believable politician as well as a human being. In its apparent desire to avoid controversy and humanise Margaret Thatcher to the point of enfeeblement, The Iron Lady fails to engage with her as a politician which is a central part of her historical identity. To take a controversial figure and focus upon the controversy, and make a believable, sympathetic character out of that context could have been really interesting and, had I seen such a film, I would have been impressed. But to treat Thatcher’s political career virtually as part of the background is to disrespect Thatcher herself, deliver a safe, anodyne film and treat the viewer to little more than a series of vaguely connected vignettes. It could have been so much more, and what is there is all too easy.
There was rumour at one point that Oliver Stone was to direct a biopic of Margaret Thatcher. While he has mellowed in recent years, Stone used to be Hollywood’s enfant terrible, and has delivered films of other controversial figures, most recently W. W. is a thoroughly odd film, eclectic in casting, style and music, but Stone wraps it together with enough élan to keep the viewer engaged. George W. Bush is arguably even more controversial than Margaret Thatcher, and Stone’s film engages with the controversy without offering tedious, moralistic judgement. A judgement in The Iron Lady was not essential, but engagement with the political history of a politician seems obvious, and to actively avoid this feels like cowardice and a lack of conviction in the subject. Meryl Streep’s performance has conviction and she richly deserves the plaudits and awards she has received (or, to quote the great lady’s Oscar acceptance speech, “whatever”). It is a crying shame that the screenwriter and director do not also demonstrate this conviction, instead delivering a film that is, ultimately, a tale of an old woman suffering from dementia and experiencing flashbacks of her vivid, fascinating and controversial life. How frustrating, then, that the film itself is not vivid, nor fascinating, and only controversial in playing it so utterly safe. Easily, the biggest disappointment of the year.