Such was the long shadow cast over the 1980s in the UK by the government of the time, that when I was growing up as a boy I thought the purpose of General Elections was to decide who would form the Conservative Party.
Their impact on the country was embodied and dominated by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, whose shadow continued through John Major’s premiership (and arguably his successors since, including Labour). In Thatcherism, she has spawned her own ideology, and few politicians manage that.
Opinion about Thatcher, to put it mildly, is divided. To put it unmildly, she was an abomination to any idea of society and togetherness, and was bitterly loathed by a whole range of people including trade unionists, Irish republicans, pacifists, pro-Europeans, and supporters of home rule (as devolution was rather quaintly called back then).
Added to that the fact that she is still (just) alive, you can imagine that someone proposing a film about her life would be on a hiding to nothing – with such extreme views towards her out there, how would you tread a path that was both factually and creatively sustainable? How could you tread a course between idolisation and vilification, not to mention reactions against either?
The answer lies in the magnificent film The Iron Lady, which I saw last night at Eden Court. I was genuinely expecting not to enjoy it, because I figured that the film would veer towards a positive portrayal, and because it’s tempting in a film to simplify and, dare I say, Hollywoodise things that are hyped to be so big. I was quite wrong, and really enjoyed the film. Firstly, it was beautifully directed, and secondly the lead, Meryl Streep (of whom I’m not much of a fan) was outstanding.
Whether as the firebrand Prime Minister dressing down the American Secretary of State and dominating Cabinet meetings, or as the demented, confused old woman in the twilight of her years, Streep captured Thatcher to a… well, T, and brilliantly expressed her voice, her mannerisms and her behaviours. Seeing her from a young woman to a very old one, we see a variety of events in her life – her first foray into constituency politics, her election to parliament, her role as a minister and then as Prime Minister. The story takes in big events of the 1980s such as the Falklands War, miners’ strike and IRA bombings. It cleverly mixes archive footage with reconstructions at times, and also cleverly jumps back between the present and the past, so we can set her current mental and physical frailty in the context of the strength she once had and the events over which she reminisces.
At the end, as we think back over her career through the lens of the film, I think the viewer might tend to pity her. Not because as a Prime Minister in difficult times she couldn’t have done better, but because as an intelligent politician she should have known better. Known better than to rip many different hearts out of British society and leave devastating vacuums, some of which have never been filled; than to be so cold and heartless towards friends, colleagues and family; than to have led without ensuring she was taking her closest associates with her.
This steely yet ultimately self-defeating determination was captured perfectly by Meryl Streep: her portrayal of an uncompromising Thatcher leaves you unendeared to the former Prime Minister while nevertheless understanding the strength of feeling she had. Streep wasn’t the only star, though – I thought Jim Broadbent as her husband Dennis was terrific, while Richard E Grant and Anthony Head brilliantly captured Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe respectively. It was quite evocative the way the film was so accurate in personal portrayals that you could easily remember them, the film almost nostalgically taking you back to an era of thick-rimmed glasses and chunky TV graphics, to a day before politics was so image-obsessed.
I doubt the film will affect Thatcher’s legacy or reputation – she did too much damage for that to ever be repaired, and in any case the film was not unduly positive about her. It was cleverly made, superbly acted and I’m glad to have seen it.