Could they not have let Thatcher be Thatcher?
The Iron Lady was not without some great moments, but it is disappointing that this film will probably mean that a figure as a monumental in British politics as Thatcher will not get the cinematic treatment she merits for some years to come again. Sure, it’s up to the director, Phyllidia Lloyd to portray her subject as she wishes, to choose the focus of her film, but it was certainly not the film I’d been hoping for.
I found the framing device of the story told as a series of memories of a Thatcher suffering from dementia distasteful and almost voyeuristic. The moment in the opening sequence when we realise that the Dennis Thatcher she is speaking is her delusion seems played as a gag.
It’s not unusual for a biopic to start at the end of a life and look back. We’ve seen it in Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, and many others. Maybe the fictional account in Citizen Kane was the best early use of this. But we rarely have the later years dominating. A fault more of the production company than the director, but it was not marketed in this way. There is only the briefest hint from the trailer of this, but you can’t rely trailers (you could have bee forgiven from the trailer of A Single Man in thinking Firth and Moore played romantic leads).
What it missed was a real sense of what made her such an iconic figure. It wasn’t just that she was a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment, or that she kept her pearls. she is remembered, fondly or hatefully, for the policies that would be considered Thatcherism. We catch elements of this in the film, but only through her discussions with her cabinet members. And even at that, these scenes are not sustained enough before flashing forward to the ailing Thatcher thinking back to those better days.
What it crucially misses is a sense of the change in Britain from her premiership. We know from crowds banging on her car window that she wasn’t universally liked. And that Geoffrey Howe was bad at spelling so was embarrassed into leaving the cabinet. But it seems odd to have had a film of Thatcher without the characters of Arthur Scargill or Neil Kinnock. Michael Foot features, but only across the dispatch box in the chamber. To some her fight against the miners showed she would let Britain be held back by inefficient industries; to others it showed her callousness towards the devastation of communities. But for either, it was a crucial episode in her career. Or as she is considered to have played an important role in the years leading up to the end of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain, surely Ronald Reagan could have featured in a speaking role?
The only episode to get the treatment close to what it deserves was the Falklands War. Yet even there, the film does not convey how it was her success that that led her win the 1983 general election she might otherwise have lost. Even at that more generally, and maybe I like these details more than most, but there was hardly a mention, let alone a portrayal on screen, of the fact that she won three successive elections. Aside from a brief montage scene, there was little hint of the way of what British society was like and how it changed during the eighties.
The film does what the director wants it to do, in showing how an illness and the loss of a loved one can affect the life of someone, even one as influential as Thatcher. But this is not the biopic she deserves. One that truly shows why so many loved her, why so many hated her. Why they cared. It will be made again. It is a pity though, as Meryl Streep was excellent in this, that she will not be in that film.