The Iron Lady

January 14, 2012
Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

There’s more than a hint of irony in the title of this film, because the Iron Lady looks decidedly rusty in her old age. Although a bio pic of Margaret Thatcher is inevitably a political drama, this movie might be best described as a study of dementia. Most of our time is spent with an aged Lady Thatcher barricaded in her home, casting her mind back over her triumphs and failures.

This is a far cry from a film such as Tony Harrison’s Black Daisies for the Bride (1993), which looked at a group of women suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. The slow, poignant reconstruction of each woman’s life brought out the full tragedy of the condition. By contrast, our sympathies for Mrs Thatcher are constantly curtailed by those flashbacks to her glory days. For many viewers, including yours truly, that era is hard to forget.

Margaret Thatcher served as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1975 to 1990. She came to power in a blaze of popularity and exited as one of the most hated leaders of a democratic state. To some she will always be respected for the way she turned around a dysfunctional British economy, creating the conditions for national prosperity. A much larger number will remember her as the woman who condemned millions to poverty and despair, creating a yawning chasm between rich and poor.

Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady has an each-way bet: showing us a Thatcher who is by turns a candidate for our sympathy, and a megalomaniac who acts like a stern schoolmistress with her cabinet and the electorate. Her political persona is summed up in those immortal lines: “the medicine is harsh, but the patient requires it.”

One of the defining events of Thatcher’s leadership was her intransigent approach to the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Anyone who has seen the Comic Strip’s brilliant TV comedy, The Strike (1988) will remember how Al Pacino was signed up to play the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, in a Hollywood movie adaptation. In that spoof, Jennifer Saunders played Meryl Streep playing Scargill’s wife.

So when it was announced that Streep was set to play the role of Margaret Thatcher, it seemed as if it would be The Strike all over again. That this is not the case is a tribute to the miraculous abilities of Meryl Streep, who deserves every plaudit that comes her way for this performance, including the inevitable Oscar.

She was assisted by the fact that Thatcher’s distinctive way of talking was itself a construct, produced by elocution lessons. A brief scene of these lessons will cause many viewers to think reflexively of The Kings’ Speech.

Thatcher’s success in changing her own image may have alerted her to the power of PR. She was a pioneer in the ascendency of spin over substance. While hospitals were closing wards because of budget cuts, public relations consultants were hired to spread the message of sweetness and light.

This pernicious practice has since been institutionalised in modern politics. Where Thatcher differed from the timid, poll-driven activities of present-day incumbents, was in her willingness to take harsh, unpopular decisions and never back down. It was often said she was hardly a Conservative at all because she conserved very little. Thatcher was a revolutionary capitalist, a grocer’s daughter inspired by a narrow reading of Hayek’s free market doctrines; relentless in her determination to overthrow the quaint, old-fashioned verities of British life.

Her stubbornness was not necessarily a sign of integrity. Thatcher showed little facility for compromise and compassion, and would charge ahead when it might have been better to back off. That tendency made her look increasingly monstrous, and would eventually render her unelectable.

This film takes us through the events of her political career at break-neck speed, and obviously leaves out a great deal. Phyllida Lloyd strives to gve us a balanced portrayal of her subject, but can’t resist slipping a little noble music into the background whenever a momentous scene is played out.

The most dubious attempt to engage our sympathies comes through the character of Dennis Thatcher, whom many will remember as a colourless businessman with a fondness for gin. The real Dennis was a cold fish, but in Jim Broadbent’s portrayal he comes across as a cockney cheeky chappy.

There is no attempt to make Thatcher’s daughter, Carole, into a memorable personality. Having been cashiered from a UK TV program in 2009 for calling Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a “golliwog”, it’s probably better that Carole is kept to a low profile. Even lower – invisible, in fact – is her twin brother Mark, a notorious wide boy known for his involvement in the arms trade.

Although we see that poor demented Margaret was a tough cookie in her day, we don’t glimpse any of the really dark sides to her story. For instance, even though she saw General Galtieri of Argentina as a villain, she considered General Pinochet of Chile as a personal friend and a valued customer for British armaments. She also seems to have smoothed the way for her son, Mark, in some of his unlovely enterprises.

One could argue that all this is secondary to the main story and that Thatcher was undoubtedly a great figure in world history. It will be hard to convince those whose lives were permanently blighted by her policies, but then, as the woman herself might say, some people simply don’t know what’s good for them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDiCFY2zsfc

Published by the Australian Financial Review, January 14, 2012

The Iron Lady, UK/France, Rated M, 105 minutes

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