THE IRON LADY directed by Phyllida Lloyd (UK, 2011)

The Iron Lady  is a film about one of the most significant (and hated) political figures of the 20th century but is practically devoid on any political content.  It tells you more about the state of dementia than it does about the state of Britain in the 1990s.

That the movie should end up as little more than a vehicle for Meryl Streep is perhaps only fitting since , for Margaret Thatcher, character is all.

Thatcher stands as the epitome of conviction politics but there is no excuse for ignoring the human consequences of her regime as though they were incidental details.  We see scenes of the coalminers’ strike, the Falklands war, the hunger strikers in Northern Ireland and finally the poll tax riots but you never get any understanding of what really drove her  to stick so unwavering to her cynical beliefs on any of these issues.

A woman in a man’s world.

For all her odious qualities, there’s no denying Thatcher’s strength of character.  “I have done battle every day of my life” she says at one point and as a woman  fighting her corner in a man’s world this doesn’t entirely strike you as an exaggeration.

Streep takes a My Fair Lady approach to getting the speaking voice pitch perfect and there must have been a ‘By George, she’s got it!’ moment when she came out with  a line like  “We’re having halibut” so effortlessly.

She doesn’t quite get the shrill fishwife tones of Thatcher before she took elocution lessons but otherwise it is so scarily accurate that you can fully understand why Dr Jonathan Miller likened Thatcher’s voice to that of a ‘perfumed fart‘.

For much of the movie Mrs T is seen as frail old  lady haunted by the ghost of her dead husband – “You’re dead Denis” she reminds him somewhat superfluously.

“You’re dead Denis!”

If presenting her slow decay was meant to win my sympathy, it failed.  I only have to think back to the eleven years living in England while she was PM  for the hate vibes to return immediately.  Morrissey’s Margaret On A Guillotine, and Elvis Costello’s Tramp The Dirt Down were two of the songs that touched a chord at that time – both of these savour the dream of her dying and are a measure of the vitriol she aroused.

Movie Thatcher remembers herself as a young woman – Margaret Roberts  – and the birth of her formidable ambition : “I cannot die washing up a teacup” she warns Denis after accepting his proposal of marriage.  Rather than being a downtrodden housewife, we’re asked to believe that a typical kitchen conversation was to tell Denis of her intention “to reaffirm the principles the conservative party stands for” (those  would be greed, selfishness and inequality for anyone who’s wondering).

I never did quite understand how a dolt like Denis Thatcher managed to become a millionaire businessman and the movie doesn’t shed any light on this mystery. We see him literally unable to boil an egg (or make toast) , practicing his golf shots and making snide comments from beyond the grave.  Despite this, Jim Broadbent plays him as a man who was a steadying  influence on  Thatcher and whose death left her careering towards senility,

One of the best scenes is during a cabinet meeting in which Thatcher humiliates Geoffrey Howe by criticising the errors in the timetable he has written ( “there are two Ts in committee”).  This shows her ruthless and vindictive streak that ultimately alienated the grey-suits who understood when she was losing the plot. One minister says of her outburst “I wouldn’t have spoken to my gamekeeper like that!”

I would have liked to see more of  Richard E. Grant as Michael Heseltine and Norman Tebbit being pulled out of the bomb-stricken Grand Hotel in his pyjamas would have added a bit of drama. Come to think of it , where was Tebbit?  He plays no part in this movie despite the fact that he was a central figure in MTs government from 1979-87 and one of her strongest apologists.

Margaret Thatcher apparently refused the invitation to see this movie before it was released publicly.  I  can’t honestly say I blame her as it’s about as flattering a film portrait as Paoloo Sorrentino’s  bio-pic was about Guilio Andreotti (Il Divo).

Seeing the movie depiction of her as a dishevelled old woman I couldn’t help comparing her to Catherine Tate’s ‘nan’ character and had Thatcher seen the movie I can easily imagine her saying over the closing credits :   “What a fucking liberty!”

Related link:

“This is not the Margaret Thatcher I knew” (Norman Tebbit – The Daily Telegraph)