Back to The Iron Lady

Jim Belshaw said, quite understandably, that The Iron Lady was not what he expected. Like me he enjoyed the film: see my post Waiting for Maggie. Today The Sydney Morning Herald recycles a 3 December 2011 article from the London Telegraph.

… Of course she should have a biopic. This is almost nothing to do with the precise content of politics. It is to do with character, with the effect of character on power and the effect of power on character. It is to do with the perennial fascination of the outsider taking on the establishment. And it is to do with sex. The new film, due out in the first week of January, is called The Iron Lady. The title was the obvious choice, but also the right one. Can a woman be “iron” and still be a woman? This is an eternal subject, captured in the story of a real woman – indeed, in the story of a real woman who is still alive.

On this last point, there can be no doubt that it is calculatedly unkind to take a real, living person and portray that person as demented, which this film does. Either such a portrayal is false and therefore indefensible, or it is true, in which case the poor victim cannot answer back. The making of the film is therefore exploitative, and it is bound to hurt anyone close to her, above all, her family. In this straightforward, moral sense, the film should not have been made in Lady Thatcher’s lifetime.

But potential viewers of The Iron Lady can at least be reassured that, whatever the commercial ruthlessness, the artistic purpose is not to demean the film’s subject. The effect is to create sympathy…

As someone who pays extremely close attention to the subject – I have been writing Lady Thatcher’s authorised biography for the past seven years – I notice that Ms Streep captures virtually every mannerism and trick of speech: a slight movement of the lower lip after speaking, the smile that can suddenly frost over, the mixture of very genuine courtesy to people in general and shattering rudeness to senior colleagues (never to junior ones), and the way the voice changed after coaching, in the Seventies, to make it deeper.

The only thing she gets wrong is the walk. In real life, in her prime, Mrs Thatcher moved in what Alan Hollinghurst, in his novel of the Thatcher era, The Line of Beauty, calls a “dignified scuttle”, as she hastened from one meeting to the next clutching sheaves of paper and the famous handbag. Streep, who is taller than her subject, wears lower heels, and walks more erect, swinging her hips.

But this all-but-infallible accuracy never gets in the way of what matters even more – the archetypal…

…Opera could capture the strong colour of the era and of its central character, the emotional force pushed into issues which, in any other hands, would have seemed as dry as dust.

This film takes the operatic route, though Streep never sings (she does dance to the video of The King and I). Many of its most powerful moments are, in effect, arias…

One of the benign effects of the passage of time is that hatred comes to seem an irrelevant emotion. One does not feel that one has to loathe Julius Caesar for capturing Britain, or even Napoleon for threatening our shores. One is simply interested in what these great men did and what they were like. A comparable process is now benefiting Margaret Thatcher. You have to be over 40 to hate her. Young people, I find – whether instinctively pro or anti or, most commonly, not sure – find her extremely interesting.

I watched The Iron Lady with a woman who had worked closely with Mrs Thatcher when she was prime minister. She was upset by the portrayal of dementia, but also very moved as she left the cinema. “I feel so proud,” she said, “to have had the chance to work with such an extraordinary person in such extraordinary times.” The Iron Lady wrote a blazing chapter in the long history of our country. Despite the film’s distasteful behaviour towards a living human being, The Iron Lady rekindles some of that fire for new audiences. It serves the future of Margaret Thatcher well – much better, perhaps, than it intended.

I quoted that extensively because it chimes so well with my own thoughts. I especially like the comparison with  opera. I tried to say something similar: “And yes, it is as good as everyone says, and no, whatever I may have thought about Margaret Thatcher was kind of beside the point. Think King Lear, perhaps, with Maggie as Lear rather than as Goneril and Dennis perhaps The Fool…” Therefore I fear Paul Sheehan rather misses the point in the first part of this extract from his otherwise quite good review:

Even as the film lurches into excessive theatricality and implausible staginess, Streep’s occupation of the role is so compelling that it carries the whole enterprise without a lull.

It’s a bit like complaining that Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective isn’t quite like The Bill.  I felt the “stageiness” essential for heightening the archetypical in this very moving film.

See also: Abi Morgan: ‘I haven’t made Thatcher in to a monster’; How Accurate Is ‘The Iron Lady’?

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Robert Siegel. In the new film "The Iron Lady," Meryl Streep gives the kind of performance that makes you wonder why they even bother with competitions for acting awards in years when she’s in a movie. The iron lady Streep plays is Margaret Thatcher, the conservative British prime minister from 1979 to 1990…

SIEGEL: Meryl Streep is so good, so convincing that her depiction of Margaret Thatcher will likely be the image that most Americans will retain of her, and I say that having worked in London during the years of Thatcher’s first government. This week, mindful of the power of cinema as biography, we’re running some current biopics past some nonfiction authorities for a round of truth squadding. And joining us today from London is John Campbell, who wrote the biography "The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister." Mr. Campbell, welcome…

Well, having seen the film, first, big picture, do you think that they essentially got Margaret Thatcher and her times right?

CAMPBELL: I think essentially they did, yes. I think it’s a remarkable achievement, both of the writer, Abi Morgan, as much as of the star, Meryl Streep. I think it rings very true as a portrayal of her.

SIEGEL: Now, an American unfamiliar with British politics might assume from the movie that Thatcher was not just the first female prime minister, it looks like she was the only woman in the House of Commons. That’s a bit extreme here.

CAMPBELL: That is slightly exaggerated, yes. I mean, there is an aerial picture of her walking in a scene from above with a sea of suited men and one blue-suited woman in the middle of them. The pictures of the House of Commons show no other women at all, which is a slight exaggeration, but it is intended to show how it felt to her. It is her struggle, her battle to assert herself against a lot of patronizing men. So the fact that she felt that the House of Commons was a very male environment is accurately portrayed, even though in fact there were a few other women around…

And back to the neighbourhood, here is another view from near The Bates Motel:

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Mount Keira on New Years Day 2012

Addendum

Just thought I’d say I wasn’t at all offended by the portrayal of Thatcher’s dementia. In fact I found it was very moving. Loved the little exchange with her shrink on hallucinations…

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