This is not an easy film to watch. Just like its central character, it is a polarising film, not just in the sense that you may love it or hate it, but in the way that it can pull your own emotions to extremes as it forces both an evaluation of your political views and your emotional response to an old lady who has lost her power, her husband and her mental faculties.
If you lean towards the right you may laud the chance to revisit some of Mrs Thatcher’s finest hours and her straight talking, obstinacy and apparent strength. But if your politics are from this camp you will be horrified at the explicit reminder that power does not last forever and the woman who was once the most powerful in the world and who dominated the political scene in the UK for more than a generation has been absent from public life for ten years or more not by accident, not because she has been reforming her battalions for a final onslaught, but because she has become frail, weak, confused: the very antithesis of the memory her supporters have and have tried to retain of her. And that will hurt.
If you lean towards the left you will be ambivalent to the political messages and flashback footage to Mrs Thatcher’s premiership. The old news film concentrates on the worst: the miners’ strike, the poll tax riots, the Falklands and the IRA bombs.
For people on the left who seem to have almost secretly welcomed the Cameron premiership, the tuition fee protests, the 2011 August riots and the public sector pension strikes as a way of pitching the current Government as a re-run of the Thatcher years, the 1980s news footage of strikes and protests that lasted not for a few days but for months and even brought the army onto the streets demonstrates the extent to which Cameron is little more than a Jack Russell to Mrs Thatcher’s Rottweiler. Which is not to take a stance on current politics but to reflect on how the Thatcher premiership remains an outcast in the generally consensus driven approach of prime ministers of all parties.
But it is not the politics that those on the left will find hardest to deal with. It is the portrayal, by Meryl Streep, an actress who is from the left herself, of Margaret Thatcher’s decline. For the monstrosity in the film is not the woman herself, but her own mind, which has wrested and is wrestling her power from her and tormenting her with hallucinations, confusion and forgetfulness. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of this part of Margaret Thatcher’s life is both skilled and moving, touching sensitivities and raw nerves. Those on the left who have devoted themselves to championing the cause of the weak and powerless must now confront how they react to the pain of an old woman, brought weak and powerless by causes outside her control. And that will hurt.
There are many historical inaccuracies in this film, some more annoying than others and no student should watch with the intention of avoiding more diligent ways of researching their assignment on the Thatcher years.
The juxtaposition of television news footage of rubbish lining the streets with the miners’ strike could be confusing. The footage of bin bags heaped along the streets in fact belongs to the Winter of Discontent, but the Winter of Discontent was under the Labour Government of James Callaghan and it was these iconic scenes of uncollected rubbish along with the even more famous Saatchi poster ‘Labour isn’t working’ that helped to propel Thatcher to power in the first place.
Mrs Thatcher was not in the House of Commons car park when Airey Neave’s car exploded in a bomb attack, and so the impression that she had narrowly escaped this particular IRA assassination as well as the Brighton bomb was misleading.
There were some strange omissions, notably probably her most famous speech ‘you turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning’.
At a more pedantic level, the use of such a well-known British building, the Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, to represent the venue in Paris where Mrs Thatcher learnt she had failed to win an outright majority in the first ballot of the leadership challenge by Michael Heseltine was a little distracting to those of us who know this very famous and beautiful room. Handing an historic banqueting hall of the Royal Navy to the French, well …
This is not a documentary however, it is fundamentally a fictitious film, an imagination of what has become of this huge political force that suddenly disappeared from our national life and Meryl Streep produces a performance that must surely win her an Oscar. She manages to look like Margaret Thatcher and sound like Margaret Thatcher, without becoming an impersonator, an incredible feat given the huge range of years the character spans.
That Meryl Streep manages to take on Mrs Thatcher’s persona so well is perhaps given away when she was interviewed by Andrew Marr on Sunday 8 January and twice refers to Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s first female ‘Head of State’. Perhaps we just make allowances for that slip-up because Meryl Streep is American, but ironically it was a regular comment in the press and beyond during the Thatcher premiership that she sometimes herself confused her role as Head of Government with the lady in the Palace down the road who claimed entitlement to the description ‘Head of State’ and was by no means first in that role.
There are other strong performances too: Jim Broadbent as (Sir) Denis, the second time he has played the husband of a woman with dementia when he starred opposite Iris Murdoch in Iris, the role that won him his Oscar. Alexandra Roach plays the young Margaret trying to become an MP, Harry Lloyd the young Denis, Olivia Colman daughter Carol (Mark Thatcher never makes an appearance in the film). Anthony Head pitches the voice of Sir Geoffrey Howe perfectly in his role as Deputy Prime Minister and ultimate nemesis of Thatcher, a demotion from his more famous role as the fictitious Prime Minister in Little Britain.
Love it, or hate it, or love it and hate it at the same time, this film is a tour de force. It is entertaining, and thought provoking. It is controversial and it will excite passions on both sides of the political spectrum and amongst those who have little interest in politics. You may hate the lead role, but even if you do you cannot help but admire it for its skill and audacity. Doesn’t that all sound a bit familiar? Everyone will have a view on it so you might as well go and see it. Really, there is no alternative.
8 January 2011
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