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If the first weekend of 2012 is anything to go by, it looks like being a bumper year for the local arthouse: Friday night and two showings (of The Artist) sold out hours in advance, with a healthy overspill of disappointed punters into Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, myself amongst them. I was planning on seeing this movie eventually anyway, although how much of this resulted from horrified fascination I am not sure.

Just to give you some context, the news in late 2010 of this film’s main casting was greeted with a Daily Mail headline wondering ‘Can Meryl Streep do justice to Margaret Thatcher?‘ – to which my instant response was ‘Well, that depends on whether or not Meryl Streep has her own firing squad.’ Yes, once again I find myself in the awkward position where (sort of) professional etiquette requires me to be objective, detached, and measured about a film the subject of which fills me with unmitigated contempt and hostility strong and not entirely positive emotions. My opinion of Margaret Thatcher as a person is that she was a horribly misguided harpy obviously completely immaterial, and hopefully I will be able to prevent it from influencing this review of Lloyd’s film in any way. 

Modern-day London, and Margaret Thatcher (Streep) is confined to her home by armed guards, under virtual house arrest (and quite right too, one might think). However, this is simply because advancing age has reduced this once forceful personality to a demented old bat frequently confused elderly lady. She is, for one thing, constantly visited by the hallucinatory form of her dead husband, Denis (played on a single note of irksome joviality by Jim Broadbent). Struggling to cope with her reduced circumstances, Thatcher finds her mind drifting back to happier times.

Her youth as a grocer’s daughter, her entry into politics, her rise to party leader and then Prime Minister and the greater battles which follows – the film covers them all. The validity, in principle, of a Thatcher biopic is undeniable, for all that the woman herself remains the malevolent presence at the root of so much that is wrong in Britain even today a massive figure in recent history. The fact remains that she did a lot to for the UK, and this deserves to be remembered, for good or ill.

That said, The Iron Lady is presented in the broadest of strokes and tips its hand through its very structure. It’s just as much a fictionalised account of Thatcher’s life today as it is a genuine biography. Streep, it must be said, is exceptional in both strands – her Margaret Thatcher impression is technically astounding and ultimately deeply scary highly impressive.

However, starting in the present day with a doddery frail Thatcher is as blatant a grab at the sympathy of the audience as it’s possible to imagine and it gives the lie to any suggestion that this is an impartial portrait of its subject. It seemed to me to be a rather obvious attempt to paint a human face on the old dragon a forbiddingly iconic figure: and in doing so it makes it clear that this is to be a human story rather than an account or analysis of political history.

It’s true that this film has drawn fire from all areas of the political spectrum, which some suggest indicates the film’s impartiality. To which I say: cobblers this is not really the case. Commentators from the left are generally doing so on the grounds of the film’s political vacuity, while Thatcher’s cronies supporters on the right are vociferously railing against the (I repeat, fictional) scenes depicting Thatcher’s infirmity and encroaching senility. There’s hardly any criticism of her actual career, whether implied or open, and arguably quite the opposite is true: in one scene she’s depicted almost as a living saint, acolytes kneeling at her feet to pay their obeisance.

(All right, all right: I’ll stop now. But I think you get the idea.)

The politics of this film are, at best, simplistic. Thatcher is depicted as surrounded by conflict throughout her political career, but no attempt is made to explain why, or indeed who her opponents were. (The closest the film gets is a scene in which Thatcher, teaching her daughter to drive, endlessly shrieks ‘Move to the right! Move to the right!’) Thatcher is presented almost apolitically, as a woman struggling to make her way in a man’s world.

The key image of this film, and it’s one that’s repeated in all kinds of permutations, is of Margaret Thatcher as a lone woman surrounded by men. Sometimes she’s their leader, but she’s almost always set in opposition to them on some level. If this is an attempt to depict her as some kind of feminist figure, then it’s an odd move – she was hardly noted for encouraging or assisting other women to follow in her wake, and her defining political characteristics – iron self-belief, combativeness, disdain for compromise – are hardly traditionally female qualities.

The film briefly touches on her fixation on the men in her family – her father (Iain Glen), her husband and her son (thankfully, Mark Thatcher never shows up in the flesh) – and also her relative neglect of her daughter (well played by Olivia Colman) but doesn’t venture too far down this avenue. Presumably these waters were just a bit too deep and treacherous and so we are left with Thatcher’s political life framed in extremely basic terms.

Historically, the film is even more shaky ground, as the order of events is cheerfully rewritten to suit the narrative arc imposed by Abi Morgan’s script: most glaringly, the Falklands War sequence occurs after the miners’ strike and the Brighton bombing, simply so that unalloyed triumph is only seen after the deepest crises of the early years of Thatcher’s tenure have occurred. Here more than anywhere else it’s clear that this is not a biopic in the strictest sense: history is up for grabs.

That said, various historic figures pop up: very little Reagan (the producers presumably skittish of upsetting conservative American audiences), sadly, but a succession of famous British politicians are brought to the screen by some peculiarly effective casting choices: John Sessions plays Ted Heath, Tony Head plays Geoffrey Howe, and Richard E Grant plays Michael Heseltine. All of them are fun, moreso in fact than Jim Broadbent who – rarely – gives a performance that’s less than completely brilliant, though this is largely down to the script. As the phantom Denis he’s just a bit too jolly and easy-going, given what we’ve learned of the man. The fact he played a very similar role in the far superior Iris does not help much either.

One of the intentions of The Iron Lady‘s makers seems to have been to produce a portrait of the twilight years of someone once steeped in power and significance but now struggling to accept that this is gone. To some extent, the film is successful in doing so. But the very fact that it’s about a figure as divisive as Margaret Thatcher causes problems – hardly anyone can come to this film without their own preconceptions coming into play, one way or the other.

And, surely, to tell Thatcher’s story solely on a human and personal level is to miss the point. Thatcher was, for good or ill, an icon, an ideological touchstone, in some ways a force of nature: to make a film which excludes all this and focusses on her purely as a human being is to ignore almost everything which made (and still makes) her such a hugely significant figure. As a result, there’s a sense in which The Iron Lady feels rather disingenuous throughout. Streep is brilliant, but the rest of the film is muddled, tentative and lightweight: the lady herself would not approve.

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