Meryl Streep has received high praise for an undeniably impressive performance of one of Britain's most controversial prime ministers. Dan Poulton nominates The Iron Lady for Most Brazenly Depoliticised Political Biopic.
The sticking point around the latest Thatcher biopic (of which films there are many) is the debate around the virtues of Meryl Streep's empathetic portrayal of a woman who was lauded by some, and viscerally hated by many others.
To most on the left, a humanised depiction of a woman who caused such social misery, and was the locus point of one of Britain's most bitter class battles (and emblematic of a newly resurgent ruling class offensive) is not only inappropriate but perhaps even deliberately provocative.
To some on the right, in an attempt to re-assert Thatcherite ideology, Streep's presumably Oscar-winning role, is the perfect focus point of a film that has had an otherwise tepid critical reception.
To most rightwing commentators the film is either, rather bizarrely, a pseudo-liberal fantasy which 'consistently, and predictably, sacrifices complexity and depth in order to pretend that Margaret Thatcher was something she never set out to be, a feminist icon' (The Daily Mail); or an apolitical fuddle whose 'shallowness grates, whatever your politics. Mrs Thatcher’s steely intellectualism is all too often thrown into fuzzy focus...' (The Times).
Director Phyllida Lloyd admits that the film does not try to 'cast a judgement on Thatcher's policies', asserting that it is 'political in a feminist way' for putting 'an old lady at the centre of the story'. It is only by framing Thatcher's rise to power in terms of her struggle against class and gender politics that it is possible to present her rise as a good thing. 'What works in a grocer's shop may not work in this constituency', chides one Tory as Thatcher runs for her first seat in parliament; 'the right honourable lady needs to calm down!' taunts a Labour front bencher, echoing Cameron’s recent sexist jibe to Angela Eagle.
It is only by presenting Thatcher to us at her weakest and most vulnerable – suffering from encroaching senile dementia – that it is possible to make us sympathise with her character, ‘whatever our political views’. This to me is an unfairness at the core of the film because the reality is that this was a woman who forced people to pick sides. You were either at the receiving end of a policeman's baton (or in one shocking archive shot, what appears to be a length of steel pipe), or you were a corporation swooping in on privatised social infrastructure. Under Thatcher you were either a winner or a loser. Victim or aggressor, and we know which category Thatcher falls into.
This is a woman who, amongst other vile acts, let republican hunger strikers die, starved striking miners and ordered the aggressive sinking of the General Belgrano (killing the 300 Argentinian sailors on board and leading to deadly reprisals from the Argentinian junta.) If the film spent as much time presenting us with these scenes of ruthless aggression as it spent dwelling on a fictionalised account of her battle with dementia (in the end she manages to exorcise the ghost of her dead husband; in real life dementia, no such resolution can be found) the film would not perhaps have ended with sensitive gasps of sorrow from some of the audience members next to me.
That is what is so frustrating about this film – it's not real. I wanted to stand up in my seat and shout 'it's not real, you're all being taken in!' We're not shown reality on the screen, we're shown a massaged, depoliticised, oddly romanticised world where a doddery old lady wrestles with flashbacks from her past, which unfolds with the briskness of a little Englander schmaltz-fest awkwardly stitched to an Alan Bennett tragicomedy, only interrupted by spasms of Saving Private Ryan-esque scenes of shocking violence on the streets of Britain and the shores of a tiny island thousands of miles away that should by all rights belong to Argentina.
For me the whole film experience was like washing down a cocktail of speed, valium and anti-depressants with a bottle of Dennis Thatcher's whiskey, and surviving. Barely. The Iron Lady may well win an Oscar for best performance, but it should win one in another category, Most Brazenly Depoliticised Political Biopic.
The question is, should we be sympathising with a political ideologue who gutted British industry, put millions out of work and ushered in a neoliberal era of deepening class divides? The obvious answer seems to be no, but still the film tries to jerk tears from our eyes quicker than Thatcher snatched milk. We see an old lady weep over her dead husband, and quiveringly ask 'were you happy, Dennis? Be honest...' to which there is no reply, he's by now long dead. There's no doubt that this scene is a powerful and moving piece of melodrama. If only Thatcher had been capable of the empathy and understanding this film demands of its audience, perhaps the world would now be a different place.
For all the merits of Streep’s creation, to duck the impact of Thatcher's policies on millions of people is just not on. If nothing else it's bad taste.
Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner. His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.
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