The Iron Lady
Production year: 2011
Cert (UK): 12A
Runtime: 104 mins
Directors: Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Alexandra Roach, Anthony Head, Harry Lloyd, Jim Broadbent, Meryl Streep, Olivia Coleman, Olivia Colman, Richard E Grant, Roger Allam
After huge hype, with Meryl Streep being canvassed for another Oscar for basically just taking on the role, gushing acquaintances of Thatcher on breakfast TV, A Jeremy Vine phone in, huge bill board and side of bus adverts, advanced publicity and Thatcher’s face haunting us everywhere again, the film itself is crushingly disappointing. It is political only in the margins, with politics having only a walk on part, the rest of the show is fiction and supposition.
“It’s an imagined story of who she might be-probably not accurate.” (Streep, Women’s Hour, 6/1/2012) Got it in one and this could be the one line review of the film.
Thatcher is an all too real character but here in an entirely fictional and imagined world. The writer has taken the character of Thatcher and imagined what it must be like for her in ill health with dementia. Imagined how her memories might haunt her, how her past played out. It poses the opportunities for lots of other fictional reconstructions of her life too. The film starts with a an old women in a mac, a traditional working class housewife headscarf on her head, having popped out for some milk to the corner shop, ignored and unrecognised, as well she might be, for this is meant to be Margaret Thatcher. Then we see flash backs a lower middle class shop owner’s daughter, hard at work in the shop delving out measures of sugar and lard in a working class community. Her Dad with a distinct working class accent, though the Tory leader of Grantham town council, talking homely home truths of thrift and enterprise. This in stark contrast to the seat at Oxford and adoption of aristocratic diction and haughty mannerism, though the makers clearly don’t see any contrast here and don’t explain it. Here we see a bright young attractive thing, flirting and dancing, fussing with her make up and lip stick on her teeth. Is any of that real? One suspects little of it relates to anything other than the writers attempt to invent a ‘rags to riches’ ‘I’ve come from the streets’ narrative. Indeed the film has Thatcher telling her Oxbridge colleagues in the Cabinet how she came from the bottom and understands the masses because she has been one of them! Even if that were true and it isn’t, can anyone imagine Thatcher claiming that heritage after aspiring so hard to bump the Queen from the throne and take her place. I recall the comment of HRH as to why she felt uncomfortable in Maggie’s presence, ‘I never know which of us is supposed to curtsy’ she is said to have responded.
The upper class followers of Thatcher on Breakfast TV this week, made much of her ‘unique fashion sense’ and ‘style’ don’t see it simply as the uniform of the rich Tory women faithful, the only unique thing about the style being that at once identifies the Lady with would be aristocrats and petty royalty, all neatly styled hair, pearls and conservative twin sets.
Having set out a childhood and teenage and her struggle to the top the makers hope to have won the audience to the side of Thatcher when we come to political trajectories. Everything is from her viewpoint and justification. The director Phyllida Lloyd admits "The whole story is told from her point of view." Although to be right it’s probably from what he images her point of view might be, this film makes no claims at actual biography, especially not of political analysis. The Vine programme was at pains to convince us that while we might not like Thatcher ‘we have to’... admire her principles and the fact she was ideologically driven, it didn’t wash and the phone in was swamped with callers expressing their outright hatred of her and her political legacy.
The Film’s attempts at humour involve, strong put downs of ‘the men’ whether the long suffering Denis (who is much stronger and independently willed in this film that in reality) the Cabinet or the US ambassador. Her assertiveness and dry wit draws irritating laughter from a small section of the Newcastle preview audience I watched this with. I wanted to slap them, they being too stupid to realise this is invented dialogue and while she did in reality get her gob round some memorable phrases, ‘the enemy within’ and ‘U-turn if you want to, the lady is not for turning’ these weren’t one of them. A script writer wrote these and put them into the fictional mouth of the character.
So other than this being a hard working girl of the lower classes who educates herself to the top, what is the other conclusion the film is urging us to draw? Very strongly we are pushed to believe she is strongly a feminist. Streep in her Women’s Hour interview (6/1/) expresses the view that none of the other advocates and exponents of her politics attract anything like the hated which she does, and this can only be because it’s the fact she’s a women advancing them and not a man. It takes the female presenter to remind her, that Thatcher was an anti feminist and there was no ‘leg up’s’ being offered to any of the female career aspirants in the Tory political apparatus whether at the level of parliament, the cabinet or even of staff.
All of Thatcher’s rhetoric with regard to women is as housekeepers and shoppers, not as economist’s politicians or activists, and the effect of her policies is fiercely anti women especially anti the aspirations of working class women and girls. Yet still the film persists in trying to paint us this picture. We are shown the Thatcher eyed view of her entering Parliament, a lone women in an all male exclusive club, as if a number of strong women, especially working class Labour women had not been there before her, or were not still slogging it out in those chambers. One expects that this whole caricature is aimed at the US audience who won’t know this is sheer invention.
When it comes to the actual political aspects of the film, we might be surprised to find she has the leadership of the Tory party thrust upon her unwilling self! Not the fierce and relentless faction fight she in fact waged against Ted Heath , a fight to replace him and his ‘one nation Toryism’ with herself and naked class war, during which time we are reliably informed neither her nor Keith Joseph voted in the ‘who rules Britain’ election because they wanted to bring him down.
In the portrayal of the mass working class opposition, I can find no fault. It is clearly presented that there was mass opposition to her policies across the country, that they were being violently rammed down our throats and that they were characterised by injustice and inequality. I don’t know if this part of the film was made by another set of folk than the first part, but it certainly feels like it, ending up as a kind of ‘push me pull me’ weld of two conflicting measures of the women and her policies. A strange thing happens, in that the chronology of events is chopped and changed round much in the style that the BBC famously cut and reversed footage of the Orgreave picket and police clashes. In that piece of historic reconstruction a fierce police and cavalry charge into placid pickets, who then retaliate with missiles (lumps of clay actually though they look like half bricks on the TV news) is cut and reversed to show the hapless police officers under attack by brick throwing pickets who then retaliate with their vengeful charge. In this case, we have the miner’s strike of 84, taking place before the Falklands War. Why? Because otherwise we’d have the ‘achievement’ of the Falklands War and the crest of the nationalist wave, first, followed by the debacle and tyranny of the states response to the miners, followed closely by the mass poll tax movement and riot. This would suggest a brief period of popularity followed by a decline and mounting opposition and state repression. This would make the counter image of her as a fanatic too strong, so we have the periods broken up, first the miners strike then the Falklands victory then the Poll Tax. Even then we still would get a strongly repellent portrayal of a right wing zealot, which is why the whole film is over balanced with fictional sentimental pap. The first two thirds of the film are meant to nail this image in our heads so deep it won’t be dislodged by her negative fanatical egotism. It doesn’t actually succeed, although grandees of the Tory establishment have wet themselves with glee to see Maggie’s face everywhere and this film as the greatest propaganda coup for the Conservative Party they could ever dream of. So too does it cement her as some super importantly visionary politician who will be embraced into the national character, and honoured with a state funeral.
Thatcher’s actual legacy is not shown in this film or the rewrite of history taking place, but in the desolation poverty and hopelessness of working class Britain. The end of productive manufacture, of trade union strength, of solidarity and visions of a fairer socialist alternative to greed and dog eat dog. The rise of money capital, all the eggs in the basket of banks and finance speculation, and the gradual replacement of industrial bricks and mortar with a house of cards. Those abandoned traditional working class communities, the north, the valleys, Scotland, and the inner cities, that would make a suitable end scene to this film, rather than the long dead ghost of Denis walking out on Thatcher leaving her finally totally alone.
Depressingly tedious, it is a missed opportunity which hopefully someone more inspired will revisit in the not too distant future.