Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Iron Lady

I had resolved that I wouldn't watch it with left wing friends. There's an article forming itself in the back of my mind about how Norman Mailer was correct to say that political differences inevitably put an intolerable strain on friendships. I've been feeling that quite a lot recently, and with no little measure of sadness. I'm still not absolutely sure he was correct though, so that piece may not get written after all. But I was sure that I didn't want to watch The Iron Lady with anyone who wasn't of the faith.

I can't stand it at the best of times when someone breaks the spell immediately after a film ends (it often happens during the credits!) and offers a comment. If some pinko (and by pinko I mean anyone to the left of John Redwood) had chipped in while I was trying to digest that film I'd have been beside myself. So I watched it with no-one beside myself, because I also couldn't wait until one of my Tory friends was free to watch it.

Ironically, I don't really believe that film reviews have much merit. Typically they give away far too much of the plot; moreover, I think the most valuable response to a film is one's immediate response: that visceral reaction which trumps any and all deconstruction and theorising. It's why no-one can tell me that Commando isn't a great movie or that The Godfather is.

This one was a bit different. I've changed my mind a bit with this one, and I'm afraid that the passage of time makes me less favourably inclined towards it.

Responses to Margaret Thatcher are not binary. She is held to be an utterly polarising figure, but actually an increasing number of people have come to see her in more complex terms. They feel uncomfortable about what happened to former coalmining communities but feel grateful for her toughness in international affairs, for example.

The makers of The Iron Lady purport to see her in more human than hyperbolic terms and to have put aside their political prejudices. Yet surely they deserve at best two cheers for this. It would have been a pretty poor pantomime if they had not. Recognising the essential humanity of the main protaganist in a political film is surely a basic starting point, not an end in itself.

Credit where it is due, however. Thatcher is shown to be a person of conviction, not venality. My non-Thatcherite readers may howl at this, but that is objectively right. Demonising her as wicked has always been farcical, grotesquely unfair and demonstrably wrong. The film also accepts that there was, conceivably, a military justification for sinking The Belgrano and an intellectual one for the poll tax. Reflexively opposed to all that she stood for it is not. And the scenes which show her as a determined but nonetheless up-against-it young woman are excellent.

So private political views don't get in the way of how Thatcher is depicted personally. They may, though, get in the way of the plot. For the lengthy portions of the film devoted to imagining Thatcher in her later years are not only questionable as a matter of tact; they leave very little room for some monumentally important real-life events.

That is entirely the prerogative of the writer and director, of course. Few things are more irritating than a critic saying in what direction a film should have gone - in one sense any focus is a legitimate one. This is a work of art and not of history, after all. But it does undermine any claim the film may have had to being considered definitive.

Oliva Colman is splendid as Carol Thatcher, but are not Michael Heseltine and Norman Tebbit of rather more interest? Isn't Ronald Reagan? If Richard E. Grant's work as Heseltine hit the cutting room floor he will have reason to feel aggrieved - it's not a technically accurate impression but it doesn't need to be, and he is very good. Is Norman Tebbit even in the movie - and if not why on Earth not? Why not more of the fantastic John Sessions as Edward Heath?

Ultimately I was left with a sense not of the outrage I feared but of a missed opportunity. The truth, whatever one's political views, is surely far more exciting than the hypothesised and the invented. I would have thought that right and left wingers alike could agree on that. Jim Broadbent is a splendid screen actor. He bears little resemblance, in any sense, to Denis Thatcher. Couldn't we have had more of the 1990 leadership election? That was a moment of immense and intense high drama - were the film-makers perhaps intimidated at the thought that the real thing couldn't be matched?

I know I risk being hypocritical. I would defend to the death the right of an artist to paint whatever portrait they want using whatever colours. It is not that the painting is an awful distortion as so many of us expected- but it is rather boring.

A great deal has been said and written about Meryl Streep's performance. Some of it is preposterously hyperbolic. No-one who has actually met Thatcher (which I have, briefly) could sensibly say, as some of those involved with the film have done, that to see Streep in costume was literally to be in the presence of Thatcher. It is a nuanced and persuasive performance, to be sure ... but it's really not that good. How could it be?

All in all, The Iron Lady is not a film to fall out with friends over - which is good - and it is not an appalling smear on a frail lady - which is even better. Sceptical as I normally am of film reviews, maybe I would do as well to deliver a verdict in the sort of pithy language for which Margaret Thatcher is famous: it could have been better and it should have been better.
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