Meryl Streep's performance is outstanding - definitely Oscar-worthy - and as a portrayal of a mentally decaying woman, it is truly touching. But this could be the crux of the problem I have with The Iron Lady. As Matthew D'Ancona chortled in yesterday's Evening Standard, "this time the greying anti-Thatcher lobby will be taking on not only their arch-enemy but the world's greatest actress. As Harry Hill would say: good luck with that".
Given its high-profile reception, the very good timing with the Falkland's war anniversary, and another very memorable and likely Academy Award-recognised performance from Meryl Streep, it is unlikely another Margaret Thatcher biopic will be made within at least the next decade.
Consequently, it has a lot more riding on it than just correctly portraying a character. Unavoidably, films are often the only source of information for many of their viewers. I'm sure plenty of people have based their understanding of the Tudors on the film Elizabeth, and I'll admit, I am basing my understanding of Watergate largely on Frost/Nixon. So, for young people today who may not know the ins and outs of her government, and why many in our parents' generation spit her name in a scowl, or follow it with a kind of indignant guffaw, but live in a Britain that is still to some extent in a Thatcher hangover economically and politically, this film does not fit the bill.
The problem I have with it is not its potential promotion of conservatism - frustrating as that glimmer may be. The Iron Lady, as many have observed, is not a political film. It is a story about the first female politician as a person; her rise to power, her conviction, her passion and, ultimately, her physical decline. It is not intended to be read as political propaganda - either for the Tories (as the Left fear), or against the new coalition (as the Right fear) - and those who do see Phyllida Lloyd as prescribing the best way to run Britain are just indulging in what Matthew D'Ancona quite rightly refers to as "popcorn politics". Nor is it a complete lauding of Maggie herself. Indeed, no one's quite sure whether or not the Thatcher family have seen the film - having turned down Lloyd's offer of a private screening before its release - and Lord Hurd, Thatcher's former Foreign Secretary, has rebuked Streep's portrayal of the demented Margaret, though "a great piece of acting", as 'ghoulish' and insensitive, since she's still alive.
That said, a biopic of both Britain's first female prime minister and one of the most controversial post-war leaders has a responsibility to portray this persona in a measured and balanced way, if only to pass the tale in its entirety to the apolitical, mildly political and even actively political younger generation. It is not that the film fails to highlight flaws in Thatcher's leadership, but the way these flaws are portrayed is played down and for a 2012 viewer, doesn't have a huge impact.
Firstly, the main critique of the Thatcher reign is the numerous scenes and montages depicting the London poll tax riots. Following the largely apolitical and arbitrary riots of last summer, however, these clips, even for someone fully aware of the magnitude and political significance of the 1990 riots, lose their potency. Secondly, the Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine saga is touched upon, but in a way that fails to communicate the explosive impact of Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech. For such a notoriously quiet and timid character, his very public resignation was not only completely out of character, and hilarious for all Thatcher haters, but a huge blow for the Tory leader and the party itself, and something which many Conservatives still see as a very dellible blot on their record. Where was Howe's shocking, and oh so Conservative comment in his resignation speech comparing Thatcher to a cricket captain who had broken all her players' bats before they went out to play? Aside from being very funny, that was much more powerful than, "I have done what I believe to be right for my party and my country. The time has come for others to consider their own response", which is all we get of it. Aside from some obtuse stubbornness from Margaret, that just about tops it off in terms of political critique.
Of course, Thatcher's time in office could easily provide enough material for a trilogy, let alone one 100-minute feature film, and to take a 'human story' perspective was a very clever and diplomatic way of side-stepping the doubtless infinite problems they will have hit upon in the screenplay-writing process. But film is a powerful tool and Margaret Thatcher comes with some necessary factors, that have greatly effected today's politics. To leave them out threatens, in one fell swoop, to rewrite her reputation, which blanks out a whole pivotal episode of young people's general political understanding.
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