Whatever your regard for Margaret Thatcher, it’s worth seeing the recently released film,The Iron Lady. Firstly Meryl Streep’s characterisation is superb. A bit like watching Helen Mirren as The Queen, you do feel that you are watching the real thing. The hallmark of a great actor. So different from the eponymous heroines she played in The French Lieutenants Woman, Sophie’s Choice and Mamma Mia, you know she won’t disappoint. This is acting, not impersonation, Streep deserves the Oscar she will no doubt be nominated for. Jim Broadbent is also good as Denis. He almost makes him endearing, no mean feat when you remember how ‘Prince Philip like’ he was as her consort.
Secondly it’s a good portrait of the loneliness of the old and bereaved. The opening scene when Thatcher goes to a local shop to buy milk was filmed early in the morning. Streep commented in an article I read that she was virtually ignored, like the elderly and unrecognised Thatcher she was playing. She appears bereft without Denis and the film focuses as much on his absence as his presence, as in her demented state she imagines she sees him and talks to him constantly. Usually chiding him for playing the fool. At least he brought some humour into what appears to be an ultra serious life.
Politics is central to the film but secondary to the life and times of Thatcher. It’s a good representation of this period of social history and it would be good for those who didn’t live through it to see it. It provides a context for and understanding of some of the problems we are experiencing today. It helps those of us who lived through it recall some of the horrors of her time as premier. I try not to dwell on comparisons with the current coalition government and where they might be taking us, too frightful to contemplate. You can also see the bellicosity of Blair mirrored in Thatcher’s decision to go to war over the Falklands. The male politicians around her come across as the weak puppets they were portrayed in Spitting Image. It’s interesting to spot who they are. Michael Heseltine, Airey Neave, Geoffrey Howe and Cecil Parkinson are obvious. Not sure about the rest. Thatcher seemed to have held them in contempt. No one quite measured up to her father, it seems. (Spot the actor from Downton, equally good here).
The film starts with Thatcher’s humble beginnings as the grocer’s daughter who worked hard to get to Oxford. Agreeing to marry Denis she made him promise that he would never expect her to ‘wash cups in the sink’. (Note the last scene). There are elements of her character you could admire: her charisma, single-mindedness and resilience, well displayed in the film during the aftermath of the Brighton bomb. Then you remember the deaths of hunger strikers, the miners’ strikes, the ‘selling off of the country’s silver’ and the rest. The events mirror some of my own life. Stewart was part of the police contingent during the miners’ strike, absent for many weeks. I was in hospital when the bomb went off and clearly remembering a doctor blaspheming by my bed as he described what he would do to the bombers if he caught them.
It’s easy to see how the film has divided opinion on Thatcher and her legacy. It’s not the hagiography that Tory aficionados would want. But its not unsympathetic either, particularly as the focus of the film is on her vulnerability and decline. Speaking to Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour yesterday Meryl Streep told how surprised she was to discover how much hated and loved Thatcher is across the population, almost in equal measure. Recent discussions on whether she will get a state funeral have ignited this debate. Thatcher was the first woman to become prime minister. She used the language of the home which women and men understood. But she wasn’t a feminist, did nothing for women and was never a feminist icon. Rather she was one of those women who climb up the ladder and then pull it up behind them. A missed opportunity in my reckoning. But a good film to remind us of all this.