Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
When I started reviewing films and plays here, it was partly to aid my own memory, and I had no intention of reviewing the BIG films that everyone had seen anyway. The Iron Lady, just having picked up the BAFTA for best actress, falls into that category.
Then the Thatcher story is irresistible for someone who lived through the 70s and 80s in Britain. I never voted for her, and generally regarded her with loathing, interrupted by odd bits of grudging admiration. Streep’s portrayal is worth creating a Double BAFTA category for, and to my amazement she evoked sympathy and poignancy from the old dragon, as we used to think of her. The criticism has been that it’s morally repugnant to show a fictionalised version of a person who is (a) still alive (b) suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, or whatever you want to call it. We may hear that Lady Thatcher is a marble short of a full set, but we don’t know that she has hallucinations of Dennis; nor her relationship with her twins, Carol and Mark, though perhaps we guess that the film is pretty close.
I’d read those reservations and assumed the frazzled Thatcher came at the end. Not so. Streep is the elderly Thatcher from the outset, the whole story told in flashbacks. She must be elderly Thatcher for around half the film.
Meryl Streep as ‘Thatcher now’
It starts where I came into the Thatcher story. As Education Secretary, she banned the free one third pint of milk that all British primary children received daily. The economic benefit was dubious … dairy farmers lost business, so then needed subsidies to survive. She was dubbed “Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher” by the press and that stuck. They don’t do that episode in the film, but they do begin with her ‘snatching milk’ – her aged hand picking up a pint of milk from a supermarket shelf and trying to pay for it, elbowed out of the way by males. The start is superb scripting and subtle.
The flashbacks to the young Margaret Roberts from the grocer’s shop in Grantham start when she inadvertently signs a copy of her autobiography ‘Margaret Roberts.’ Her young self is attractively portrayed. Young Dennis is excellent too, but in his case the Advanced RP (Received Pronunciation) young voice doesn’t match with Jim Broadbent’s semi-Estuary accent as the mature Dennis. Maybe Mature Dennis wanted to play up the self-made man aspect (Dennis wasn’t self made, but the heir to the family business), and Broadbent creates a rich character, but I remember the real one as definitely posh. He was already a millionaire when they met … in 1949 that was a great deal of wealth. Thatcher trained as a barrister (already having an Oxford MA in chemistry) early in their marriage, financed by Dennis. She often spoke of the difficulties of being the mother of twins, but when your husband’s a millionaire and you spend the day studying law, I doubt that she often had the chore of changing two dirty nappies (diapers) at the same time. That was a whole chunk of interesting biography that the film skipped.
Early confrontation with all-male House of Commons
Thatcher as the lone woman in an all-male world is the main story. It’s told with humour too (which was a surprise) and has the audience rooting for her. It is overdone to dramatic effect, but that’s difficult to resist doing. In the House of Commons the camera pans over both sides and Margaret is the lone female. They ignore the fact that Barbara Castle would have been sitting on the opposite front bench, having been a senior figure throughout the Wilson governments. While Shirley Williams lost her seat in the 1979 election that swept Thatcher to power, she would also have been on the Labour front bench in Thatcher’s pre-Prime Minister career, having been a minister in the Wilson and Callaghan cabinets, and Shadow Home Secretary in the Heath era. Shirley Williams for me is the best Prime Minister we never had. Even in 2012, Parliament is only 22% female, but in the 1970s it was not 629 men to one woman. It hovered around a feeble 4 % in 1970s, which would give around twenty female MPs (which was the same as 1945).Thatcher may be a role model as the first woman PM, but there’s little evidence that she did much to promote women (she says in the fictional character that she prefers to be surrounded by men) and she certainly never promoted women’s causes, except in her own case as an exceptional individual. She fits the theory that high-acheiving women politicians are the only or oldest daughters of ambitious parents. Then I checked the statistics via Google, and the number of women MPs DID change:
1979 – 19 women
1983 – 23 women
1987 – 39 women
1992 – 59 women
Cabinet meetings in the film show her as the only woman, and I thought that must be over the top for effect, but it’s not. In most of her cabinets, she was the only woman … which would have been her choice. The exception was Baroness Young, 1981-83. No other woman got onto the team. In contrast, Wilson had had two powerful women in his cabinet (Castle and Williams). John Major following her, had no women in his first cabinet, but two women in his second cabinet, Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shepherd. He also “had” Edwina Currie on the side, but that’s another story. Many women believe Thatcher was misogynistic, and the statistics bear that out. That should have been addressed in the film.
The film is fascinating on the Falklands War, where she showed her power. It glides over her friendship with President Reagan in a couple of seconds (an important era … see the article Thatcherite here), and confines her success in turning around the economic state of the nation (for good or ill) to a couple of glimpsed news headlines. The Falklands and the IRA make better drama. She’s shown in 1990 at the height of arrogance, losing her cabinet, insisting that a document is wrong because ‘poverty’ should have two t’s. Early onset dementia? And did that ever happen? The plotting males around her definitely did happen, and is shown when she tells them the price of Lurpak butter and Anchor butter (to show she’s in touch with the people) and they haven’t even heard of them. ‘Grocer’s daughter!’ hisses one. Another memorable line (there are so many) is when one of the affronted Tory grandees says ‘I wouldn’t talk like that to my gamekeeper!’ I wonder if the script writers had slipped in another subtle point … Lurpak butter is Danish. Anchor is New Zealand. She didn’t choose an English brand. A favourite question that Mojo magazine ran for years when interviewing rock stars was ‘How much does a pint of milk cost?’ which is an excellent way of judging involvement with real life. Thatcher passed that one three times in the film.
Cabinet meeting near the end as the wolves gather
The poll tax brought her down. It was hugely unpopular and impacted on the poorest in society, but I for one believed one aspect of Thatcher’s line at the time. My mother lived in a three-bedroom flat on her pension. The other flat in the building belonged to a couple with two boys in their mid-20s, and they really had the four cars under two years old which Thatcher liked to talk about. Because council tax (or “rates”) is a local tax on property, my mother paid the same per year as the four employed adults did between them. In her case, and in the case of many, or most, elderly people, poll tax had to be a fairer system. OK, down the road a rich bachelor with a Ferrari would see his local tax drop, while the family with two kids seeking work would see it rise, but then again income tax should have evened that out. BUT, and it’s a “but” that Thatcher ignored, it was a painful transition, which hit the young and students very hard, and some hybrid system slowly introduced was the only way it could ever have gained acceptance.
There’s a lot of newsreel footage from the era. I’d heard people debate whether it was pro-Thatcher or anti-Thatcher. I didn’t think it was either, just a fascinating study of power and the road to power, and the sadness of decline into dementia.
Whatever you think about them, Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Thatcher and Major all marked an era when the “grammar school” educated took the reins in British politics. The ages of being run by the public school boys seemed to be over. Tony Blair and David Cameron both mark the posh public school boys regaining the reins.