Crumbling ironwork – The Iron Lady

“All I wanted to do was make a difference in the world.”

StreepThatcher

There have been many onscreen depictions of Margaret Thatcher, both during and after her highly divisive Premiership. She’s been portrayed by satirists (Janet Brown, Jennifer Saunders), respected actresses (Lindsay Duncan, Maureen Lipman) and the just plain unlikely (John Lithgow on Saturday Night Live). All of these have tended to focus on one particular incident in her turbulent time in office – her struggle to become MP for Finchley, her conduct of the Falklands War, her relationship with Chilean dictator and all round bad guy General Pinochet. But Phyllida Lloyd’s much trumpeted new biopic The Iron Lady is the first attempt to make a comprehensive biography of this most divisive of Prime Ministers. Generally, it succeeds. But there are some massive, glaring flaws.

Margaret Thatcher is a difficult figure to approach objectively. Not for nothing have I used the word ‘divisive’ twice in the last paragraph; this is a woman whose leadership polarised political factions more than any other. To the left, she’s a catch-all demon, to be invoked as an example of everything that’s wrong with free market Conservatism. To the right, she’s the perfect angel, in her defeat of socialism, quashing of troublesome trade unions and championing of that very same free market. The truth is almost certainly more complex and nuanced than the popular perception, and it’s that truth that Abi Morgan’s screenplay tries to get at here – not the truth about Thatcher as a politician, but Thatcher the human being, Thatcher the woman, Thatcher the mother, and most of all, Thatcher the wife.

To do this, the film tries its level best to be generally apolitical, not passing any moral judgement on anything Thatcher did or didn’t do, but merely attempting to depict it without comment. But Margaret Thatcher can’t be separated from her politics – politics is what drove her, what made her the person she is or was. The trouble is, with feelings about her still very strong on both sides, it’s difficult for a film maker to produce a partisan piece; support her, and you’ll win firm condemnation from any left-leaning viewers, condemn her, and you’ll be damned as a leftist yourself. The trouble is that sidestepping the moral issues of the politics makes the movie seem in some ways rather anodyne.

I’ve generally enjoyed Abi Morgan’s work as a writer, most recently her 1950s set newsroom thriller The Hour, but in order to walk this apolitical line, the script she’s come up with here is a curious mixture of the cliched and the inspired. In keeping with the most overused of Hollywood tropes, it shows Thatcher as a woman triumphing over all the odds against her, fighting against the (male) establishment and winning. Now, no doubt there’s a fair bit of truth there. But the presentation, all sneering men against our plucky heroine, Thomas Newman’s score giving us swelling strings as Margaret triumphs yet again, recalls all the numerous Hollywoodisations of women triumphing over adversity – Silkwood, Erin Brockovich et al.

In keeping with that style, they’ve got a Proper Hollywood Star in to play Maggie – no less a luminary than Silkwood star Meryl Streep herself, in case you’ve been living in a cave and missed the insane amount of media coverage her casting has had over the last year. But while I wanted to dislike her – how dare this American try to portray our most famous post-war Prime Minister, even if I did hate her? – I have to join in the rest of the critical worship and admit that Streep simply makes the movie.

Her performance is extraordinary, and extraordinarily good. With some clever and subtle makeup, she somehow manages to pull off the tricky feat of convincingly impersonating a well-known public figure while simultaneously giving a nuanced performance. For most of the time she’s onscreen, you forget to admire this, because she so thoroughly inhabits the role, your brain never questions that what you’re actually watching is Margaret Thatcher herself. Not only that, but Streep shows us Thatcher developing over decades, from Education Secretary to Conservative leader to Prime Minister to frail old lady, and catches all the mannerisms that we, the public, always saw in her. That shrill, hectoring voice, trained downwards for authority in her run for party leader, is easy to impersonate, but not so easy to incorporate into a performance; but a real performance is what Streep pulls off, and talk of Oscars seems perfectly justified to me.

The trouble is that, while Streep towers over the rest of the movie, other aspects of casting and characterisation are less successful. There seems to be, in British drama, a standard roster of character players you’re used to seeing as Parliamentarians in this kind of thing, and they all seem to be present and correct here. Nicholas Farrell is Airey Neave, Roger Allam is Gordon Reece, Richard E Grant is Michael Heseltine, etc. For the seasoned viewer of TV satire and docudramas, the struggle was to not associate them with all the other parliamentary dramas they’d been in, and remember that they were playing real people.

And since the movie isn’t being outright political, they’re playing those real people as cyphers, two-dimensional cutouts that lack even the depth given to them at the time by Spitting Image. This is a shame; there are some good actors here who do the best with the material they’re given, but it’s telling that, some of the time, I couldn’t tell who they were meant to be until I looked at the cast list. Given the most screen time is Anthony Head, trying his best to dull down his natural smooth good looks and impersonate Geoffrey Howe. He does pretty well, but his attempt to imitate Howe’s flat drawl comes across as rather forced, as though he’s smoked 80 Marlboro a day then taken a dose of Mogadon.

That the movie chooses to avoid politics by sidelining figures like these is actually a shame, because anyone who lived through those years knows that the British politics of the 70s and 80s was genuinely colourful and dramatic. In the days before spin, before focus groups and the domination of PR companies, politicians seemed like real, often wildly eccentric personalities. The movie catches a little of that, in a couple of montages that show the House of Commons to be a kind of shrieking Bedlam (accurate enough), but reduces some real, flamboyant figures to little more than extras. Grant’s Heseltine, for example, is barely seen, even when he stabbed Thatcher in the back to challenge her leadership; Ted Heath, portrayed rather colourlessly by John Sessions, only gets one scene before he is deposed (offscreen) by Maggie and her scheming cohorts. The few occasions which do show Thatcher sparring with her opposition in the House give a little glimpse of how well this could have been done, with Streep electric in catching her subject’s vehement, strident certainty. But even here, her main opponent is Michael Foot (a convincingly scruffy portrayal from Michael Pennington), though her most fondly remembered scraps of the 80s came with Labour leader Neil Kinnock, not even shown here.

Of course, like her or loathe her, everyone has their favourite Thatcher moment, and it would be impossible for the movie to please everyone on that score without being longer than The Godfather. But for the sake of the drama, it seems odd that some moments have been left out – most notably, Thatcher’s own ultimate downfall could have been neatly counterpointed by details of how she inflicted an identical betrayal on Heath, heightening the sense of hubris when she is ultimately deposed in the same way. Instead, we get an almost disturbingly messianic sequence in which, composed apart from a glistening tear, she exits 10 Downing Street along a bed of rose petals to the accompaniment of a mournful operatic aria.

This kind of virtual deification is disturbing, and recurs at key moments in her career, most notably her ascension to Prime Minister. Streep delivers the “where there is despair, may we bring hope” speech well – perhaps better than the real thing – but for a movie that tries to avoid being partisan, it’s difficult to rein in the triumphalism that’s so key to ‘women triumphing over adversity’ movies. The main side effect of which is that, in portraying her as the conquering heroine, the script seems to implicitly side with her politically. It’s hard to admire her as a person without admiring her politics, and oft times, the movie seems to do that.

As it progresses then, we get a potted history of her political career, which tells us little we didn’t already know. We see her intransigent stand against the trade unions, but with little conveyance of the consequences it had; the miners’ strike is glossed over in a couple of minutes. We see her agonising over the deaths in the Falklands (though, significantly, not the Argentinian ones). And we see her shaken by terrorism, as she is (implausibly) the first one to the scene when Airey Neave is blown up by a car bomb, then victim herself in an effective recreation of the Brighton hotel bombing. All of this is well enough done, but has an almost ‘tickbox’ approach. The scene late in her Premiership in which we see her ruthlessly bullying her Cabinet at a meeting is brilliantly done by Streep et al, but is nonetheless nothing more than a convenient dramatic shorthand to emphasise her ego and hubris, which made her downfall inevitable. Done better, this could have been almost Shakespearean; as it is, it just seems workmanlike.

But even if the movie seems (to me) to fail by divorcing Thatcher from the politics that were so much an integral part of her, it does rather well on its own terms, at portraying her as a flawed human being in her relationships with her family. This is best shown by the framing narrative which actually takes up about half the film; Margaret as she is now, a doddering frail old lady, guarded by machine gun wielding policemen who keep her a virtual prisoner, and most notably haunted by the shade of her beloved Denis, dead eight years previously. As Denis, Jim Broadbent is reliably brilliant, making him loveable in a way that he actually really did seem at the time. Broadbent has two tasks here. In the flashbacks, he’s the real Denis, curmudgeonly, irascible, but part of a loving relationship in which the participants endearingly refer to each other as “M.T.” and “D.T.”. In the present day, he’s a hallucination of the increasingly frail Margaret, prone to sharp observations that logically must have come from deep within her own fragmented mind.

This framing narrative is where the movie works best, though as a consequence, it’s quite uncomfortable to watch. The ageing make up on Streep is thoroughly convincing, as is her body language as she shambles, lonely, through her dimly lit flat. Since by this point you’ve virtually come to believe that she really is Thatcher, it’s hard to watch the indignity to which she’s come. Which isn’t entirely helped by the presence of Olivia Colman as her frequently visiting daughter Carol. Colman, a skilled actress does pretty well, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the glaringly obvious false nose she had to wear – evidently all the good makeup had been saved for Streep.

But these scenes do work extremely well, though I can see why some real life acquaintances of Thatcher find them in poor taste, particularly while she’s still alive. Interestingly, the other really effective sequences are the flashbacks to Margaret’s early years, in which we see her enthusiasm for politics fired up by her small business owning father, and falls in love with an improbably pretty young Denis. For all the praise that’s been heaped on Streep, it’s fair to note that Alexandra Roach also makes a real impression as the young Maggie; Harry Lloyd effectively twinkles as the young Denis, though he’s a little distractingly good looking.

It’s a telling point that the screenplay works best at being apolitical in these sequences particularly; it’s a tightrope it can’t quite walk depicting her actual time in office. As a director Phyllida Lloyd teases out some great performances, and also has the occasional flash of visual brilliance. In particular, there are some very effective overhead shots; of Margaret, the only flash of colour in a crush of black-clad MPs, or of Margaret surrounded  by a crush of the admiring press at her ascension to PM, who gradually fall back from her as if in worship. But Lloyd is a little hamstrung by the movie’s low budget. It really needs a sense of scale to match the real life events, but this can only be provided by the insertion of grainy contemporary news footage, stretched to fill the widescreen image so that people in it look oddly wide. This is generally jarring, and actually has the effect of highlighting the lack of budget, making the viewer even more conscious that the filmmakers couldn’t afford to restage these events in the manner of movies like, say, Gandhi (and that’s a comparison I never thought I’d be making).

The Iron Lady is, at best, a deeply flawed film which can’t quite find an identity. But it is very watchable, if only for Streep’s magnetic performance. And it might be interesting to find out the reaction from people who have little knowledge of the real events portrayed – mostly more than 20 years in the past now – who would be able to take the movie on its own terms rather than as a recreation of times they actually lived through. It comes across as a TV movie writ large, elevated beyond BBC4 by the casting of an international superstar and little else. Not that that’s any reason to condemn it, and as an attempt at a proper biography it works pretty well. But I do wonder whether, with a perspective of distance, later films about Thatcher might be able to come up with a better judgement of her leadership than simply her triumph over adversity as an undeniably formidable woman.