Sunday Review on Monday: The Iron Lady

by Tom Harris

Margaret Thatcher is an interesting person. Hers is a fascinating story, crammed full of controversy and drama. The first woman ever to become British prime minister, she destroyed the miners, defeated Galtieri, defied the IRA, presided over record levels of unemployment, poverty and social unrest while enjoying unprecedented electoral success. Her dramatic rise to the top of the Tory party and her ruthless dispatch after nearly a dozen years at Number 10 is the stuff of Shakespeare.

So it was inevitable that her story would, at some point, be captured on celluloid, the former PM herself being portrayed by a noted and established actress. Whether you consider Thatcher the heroine or the villain of the story, her biopic was one that everyone with even a passing interest in British politics or social history would queue to see.

What a pity, then, that they made The Iron Lady instead.

It’s quite legitimate, of course, to use the device of an ageing woman succumbing to the early stages of alzheimer’s in order to tell a back story through flash backs. Unfortunately – and frustratingly – they seem to have done it the other way around. The Iron Lady is primarily about using a few very brief glimpses of Thatcher’s premiership in order to tell the fictionalised story of her loneliness and her imaginary arguments with her late husband, portrayed (unfairly) by Jim Broadbent as an intensely irritating individual.

Hugely significant episodes in Thatcher’s – and Britain’s – political life are barely explored. The defining moment of her early career – her unexpected challenge to Ted Heath after the October 1974 general election defeat – isn’t included, other than a bizarre announcement (while she is still in government) that she intends to challenge for the party leadership. The miners’ strike of 1984/5 is covered by a single TV reporter’s headline. Even the Brighton bomb in 1984 barely features; after the explosion we see her anguished features staring at the chaos from the safety of her government car. And that’s it.

And you have to ask why any other actor, having seen the script, would even have agreed to appear. Anthony Head gets a few lines as Thatcher’s deputy-turned-nemesis, Geoffrey Howe, but only a few. John Sessions as Heath and Richard E. Grant as Heseltine are among an army of decent actors who are woefully under-used (watch carefully and you’ll see one scene in the Commons chamber in which James Smith – Glen out of The Thick Of It – who has a non-speaking part as foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, sits on the Labour front bench sans spectacles).

Just as you are about to get drawn into one real life drama – the murder by terrorists of Thatcher’s long-time friend and confidant, Airey Neave, for instance, or the genuinely dramatic portrayal of the Falklands campaign – zap! – we’re back in fictionland, having to sit through more tedious nonsense about Baroness Thatcher having to clear out Denis’s clothes even as she discusses her legacy with his obstreperous ghost.

These are the scenes that are, by far, the most dull. If I’d been watching The Iron Lady for the first time on DVD, I’d have thanked God for the fast-forward button every time the director returned to the present. Unfortunately, by the time all those scenes were edited out, you’d be left with a very short film which said almost nothing about a crucial era of British history.

Thatcher’s career was fascinating, packed with drama, hubris and tragedy – political and personal. How difficult can it be to construct a drama that reflected that?

To have had the chance to enjoy such a convincing and powerful portrayal by a world class actress like Meryl Streep, only to waste it with this script, is a huge missed opportunity.

Of course, perhaps the funders – the UK film council and Film 4 – were more comfortable with a worthy, dull tale about a woman’s slide into dementia and loneliness than an entertaining one about hard politics. After all, box office success is just so vulgar, isn’t it? So un-British, so… American.

But I suspect that box office success is something the producers won’t have to worry about.

Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow south.

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5 Responses to “Sunday Review on Monday: The Iron Lady”

  1. John P Reid says:

    I’ll wait for the J edgar film instesd

  2. So, Tom, did you like the film, then? 🙂

  3. Miranda says:

    This is a completely accurate summary of the film. Absolutely nothing on the Miner’s Strike = ridiculous! Meryl Streep was brilliant but I kept asking myself what the purpose of this film was; the ‘so what?’ question if you like. Very disappointing for anyone interested in an extremely significant period in British modern political history. Someone will have to make another one….

  4. resistor says:

    Perhaps they should have made a ‘Downfall’ parody.

    ps When will Harris do a Bozier and defect to the Tories?

  5. swatantra says:

    I’m waiting for ‘Thatcher the Musical’ with Streep and Firth as Maggie and Denis.
    Mama Miow, The Mummy Returns.

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