The Iron Lady

Art & Culture

It's hard to imagine what the real Maggie Thatcher would make of this film, if indeed she would make anything of it. We are led to believe that she is in the advanced stages of dementia and incapable of recognising anything very much. But if she did watch the movie, she might feel that she came out of it pretty well.

Anyone who was an adult between 1979 and 1990, and living in the UK, will have formed an opinion about Thatcher one way or the other. I belong to the camp that couldn't (and still can't) stand her. Yet in the hands of Meryl Streep, we are briefly deluded into thinking that she might indeed have been a great leader, and an icon for feminism, triumphing in the face of hate, contempt, snobbery and weakness. Is that what the film wants us to think? That's the rub.

Because Abi Morgan's script comes up with a cunning plan. Rather than simply making a biopic out of her life, the story is viewed from the present day, when an aged and semi-senile Thatcher wanders round her apartment, haunted by the cheerful presence of the long-dead Denis (her husband, played with conviviality by Jim Broadbent). She can hardly distinguish past from present, and therefore wanders in her mind back to her youth, when she worked alongside her much-adored father in Grantham, before securing a place at Oxford, and entering poiitics. The young Margaret Roberts is ambitious, earnest and determined, and aided and supported by the young Denis. They make an endearing young couple as they dance their way to the top.

And there's the catch. Because the film is essentially Thatcher's own recollections of herself, the author and director are spared accusations of taking sides. This is how she sees herself, they can say. We are simply presenting her own personal slideshow. From MP to leader of the party to Prime Minister. Tackling striking workers, tricky colleagues and angry Argies, she is her own Boadicea, smiting all who stand in her way, heroic, triumphant, indomitable. And every so often, we tootle back to the present, where a convincingly aged Meryl tackles the difficulties of being a has been, of no longer being the centre of the world. But my question is whether it is sufficient to opt out of taking sides with such a divisive character – although you could argue that casting the magnificent Meryl Streep in the leading role is very much taking sides. Because however uncannily she impersonates Maggie, Meryl cannot help being infinitely more appealing than the original. She is more beautiful, more humorous, more likeable. Watch this and then you will remember how deeply unappealing Thatcher was. Self-righteous, opinionated, patronising, blinkered – these are some of the more charitable words I would choose, none of which crossed my mind during the film, which is why this is less of a hatchet job and more of a thatchet job. The overall presentation is too flattering, with a combination of emotive music and a gloss on political detail that makes major events into insignificant discussion points on her path to immortal glory. The Geoffrey Howes, Michael Heseltines and other contemporary politicians are reduced to footnotes, with only Airey Neave given any kind of prominence.

I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the film. I found Streep's performance mesemerising, even if only because it is simultaneously uncannily accurate, and completely inaccurate. I'm not sure why the film was made, and who it was made for; nor whether it will attract any sort of audience. I hope Meryl wins an Oscar, because I adore her as much as I loathe Thatcher. But if, as is widely expected, Maggie dies in the next few months, then I would hate this film to be seen as some kind of documentary. It's a fantasy, and should be treated as such.


Philip Raby

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