Even die-hard opponents of Margaret Thatcher should respect the journey. A grocer's daughter who entered the house of commons – a bastion of male supremacy – would have been achievement enough.
To have risen up through the ranks to become Britain's first prime minister was breathtaking. I start with this because Thatcher's energy, fortitude and sheer balls made observers forget that she was just a WOMAN in a man's world. And because Thatcher was such a controversial figure – in some industrial areas you still have to queue up to hate her – it's easy to overlook the human story.
The house of commons itself is also notoriously sexist. Until recently, many female MPs had to put up with all kinds of coarse jibes and innuendo. Just making yourself heard in such a male zoo must have been an achievement in itself for a new lady member.
Despite Thatcher's confidence – indeed her thick skin in her later years – she was on record as saying she did not believe there would be a woman prime minister in her lifetime. (At one point Shirley Williams would have seemed a far likelier prospect). When she challenged Edward Heath for the leadership of the conservative party few – including Thatcher herself – expected to win. The Labour party was overjoyed at her success. "We've just won the next general election," said the foreign secretary of the time, James Callaghan.
The strength of The Iron Lady is that it does acknowledge the human story, the woman enduring the baying beasts in the bearpit who tried to trip her up at every hurdle. When she first won the leadership, she was almost universally mocked for her cut glass accent, slightly prissy, high pitched voice and her air of a housewife from the gentrified suburbs. The film does well in depicting her isolation. It also – and who would have doubted it? – contains a great performance from Meryl Streep who captures Thatcher's cadences and intonations, as well as her steely gaze, just perfectly.
Yet the film errs by only skimming the political landscape. Instead it concentrates on a present day depiction of a gaga Thatcher. She is depicted as not just senile but deranged, in perpetual conversation with her late husband. The constant intrusions of dead Denis - who repeatedly jumps up like a jack in the box joker to interrupt flashbacks of historical significance - are rather ghoulish. In addition, the real Denis Thatcher was convivial but very posh, not at all "blokeish" as depicted by Jim Broadbent. Had no one associated with the film not seen a show called Anyone For Denis? which had a much sharper depiction of the consort?
We are shown Thatcher defeating all comers as if they are interchangeable – Heath, Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock – but those outside politics could well be confused because they are never named and just remain peripheral obstacles. Not enough is made of defining moments in her premiership or the lead-up to it. Big events – the Brighton bombing, the death of IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, the 1984 miners' strike, the Winter of Discontent, the Falklands War and the poll tax riots – are not seen chronologically but rather willy nilly.
The film is still out of focus at the end – Michael Heseltine is inconspicuous and Geoffrey Howe is shown as a figure embittered by a slight from the Cabinet "headmistress" as if this were his only gripe. The huge issue of Europe, which created such a chasm between her and Howe and her chancellor Nigel Lawson, is also barely mentioned.
Those who like Thatcher are likely to be appalled by the insensitive depiction of her current state of health. And those who opposed her may take just the contrary view, that the film humanised someone who showed little humanity. To that extent political biopics are doomed but this one shoots itself by over-egging Thatcher's mental decay.
A triumph for Streep but a tighter script and direction, and less morbidity, would have helped.
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