Iron Lady… can we have films on living people?

This follows my recent FB post.

I went to see The Iron Lady, and although I believe Meryl Streep to be one of the greatest actresses of all times, and I’d happily prostrate myself at her feet hoping to get some of her talent by merely being in her presence, I thought the film was a pointless exercise and a missed opportunity.

Let’s say it straight away: I’m no Thatcher’s fan. I was too young (and living in another country) to truly remember her politics in detail (I remember the Faulklands war being mentioned in the Italian news though), but I’ve read enough, heard enough and talked to enough British people ruined by her politics to make up my mind. In my opinion she was a ruthless champion of capitalistic individualism, the extreme consequences of which we’re experiencing now with the current financial crisis.

Of course, this opinion is totally objectable and I’m sure there’s many of you out there who think she was an amazing politician. Good for you. I will never hide my deep social-democratic ideals, and I’ll always despise politics aimed at defending money over people, finance over community, and greed over solidarity. I will never vote a Right wing party, ever. I hate what they stand for.

But even those who loved Thatcher have been disappointed with this movie. Why?

Because it’s the story of a woman who bear very little resemblance to the true Iron Lady.

Yes, the film IS revisionist, in my opinion, but in the worst possible way: by being sentimental. By bypassing Thatcher’s politics and showing her in her old age, frail and haunted by the “ghost” of her husband (Jim Broadbent is a lovely, lovely actor playing a lovely, lovely character… But why? Why building a whole movie on the assumption that old Maggie is having visions of her late husband??? Please…)

So poor old Maggie from time to time remembers her past (in chronological order, which is handy) and we see her transforming herself from shop girl to prime minister.  What the film focuses on is her struggle as a woman to be accepted by a political world that used to allow only men to be in power. Fine, that could have been interesting. But instead of showing her deep motivations, we keep jumping back to the present (forgive the oxymoron) and to the ghost of Dennis.  Why was MT so ruthless? How come a person from her humble background never showed any empathy for the lowest parts of society, becoming the ally of the rich upper classes? Was it ambition? Revenge? Pure ruthlessness? We’ll never know. What did she “feel” for the lowest classes? Despise? Pity? Did she ever question her choices? We aren’t showed anything to suggest an answer. We see a series of political events, we see her actions but we don’t understand what drives her, really. Yes, she claims she wants “to change the world”, “make a difference”, but since she didn’t go about it by being Mother Teresa, one wonders what drove her, what made her so impermeable to criticism and to empathy. And was she so impermeable, really? We don’t know. Yes her father was a shop keeper who taught her to work hard and never wait for charity. Fine. But work ethic and the belief in “doing it yourself” don’t necessarily breed “there’s not such thing as society”.  She could have been a liberal. But no. A Tory, so right winged she was eventually ostracised by her own party for being too extreme. How come a lower-middle class girl ended up joining a bunch of snobby men who had always despised everything she represented? Now THAT would have an interesting movie.

The Iron Lady turns Thatcher into the feminist she’s never been, at one point also mimicking “The King’s speech” by showing her having lessons to change her voice.

We’re made to feel for her, her difficulty to be taken seriously by these horrible tosh (YES, but you CHOSE to be in their company, why? Why not go to Labour, where nobody would have resented her for not being an aristocrat? Was she a social climber after all? Did she despise her background, and is this why she never showed any sympathy for the workers, the miners, the unemployed? Mystery…

MT provoked divisions and extreme reactions (adoration or hatred) like no other politician in British history, which for a country so prone to “mildness” in both meteorological conditions and public displaying of feelings is quite extraordinary.
I expected this film to explain why. To help the viewers understand the reasons of her actions and the thinking behind it. because one thing I must give to old Maggie: she was a deeply intelligent woman. She knew what she was doing.
Is the Iron Lady’s director really implying that Thatcher’s choices are to be explained by her being a woman, “forced” to act ruthlessly and coldly in order to win political credit in a “male only” environment?

Sorry but not only this is ridiculously simplistic, it’s also offensive to the audience’s intelligence, women in general and Thatcher herself!


The Iron Lady looks like “Evita” without the songs, or the Devil wears Prada without… the annoying young assistant (we have Carol Thatcher instead). It’s full of close ups of shoes, clothes and pearls. It’s a girly movie, all cheers for the strong lady who makes it to the top!

Honestly, I would have loved it, had it been a piece of fiction. Pity it’s supposed to be about the most controversial British leader of the past 50 years. Somebody we all remember. And those who don’t remember her have heard enough about her from their parents to have an opinion. Such superficiality, such sentimentality is unacceptable.

Iron Lady is a film about a politician without politics. It’d be like having a film about a musician without music. Not only that. By pushing the emotional key, by showing Maggie frail and lost, it manipulates us into feeling sorry for her, without being given the opportunity to form a real opinion on the person and the reasons of her actions.

I wrote on Facebook it would be like having a film about Hitler just focussing on his troublesome childhood and his suicide, and I know the comparison is strong and possibly wrong. I had no intention to imply Thatcher was like Hitler, that would be absurd. But it is true there’s seems to be a new trend for “psychoanalysis” that runs the dangerous risk of justifying even the worst people on the basis of their difficult upbringing, painful childhood or traumatic adolescence. Whilst it might be interesting for therapist and psychiatrists to learn how the human psyche works, and where certain kind of ruthless personalities come from, I don’t think it’s a good idea to be made to “understand” even the worst people. Because the line between “explaining” and “justifying” is very thin.

Thatcher was always very proud of who she was and what she stood for, and I’m pretty sure she would never want people to feel sorry her, or sympathise for her cause because she was a woman struggling in a men’s world. That is ridiculous. She didn’t care about feminism and never tried to win people’s sympathy. So now she’s very old and has Alzheimer, and so what? So did my granny. She’s going to be remembered in history for her politics, not her dementia. Her politics is what made her interesting, for bad or for good.

It’s true, though, historical films are bound to be only partially correct and will always have to choose a point of view, a direction, a way of telling the story of their protagonist. Cate Blanchett’s “Elisabeth” did something very similar to “The Iron Lady” by picturing Elisabeth the First as a feisty woman forced to become “The Virgin Queen” in order not to loose her crown. Was that a faithful account of what happened 500 years ago? Probably not. Was it a great movie? Yes. But maybe it’s because there was nobody who could stand up and say, “hey, old Betsie wasn’t like that at all, she was a horrible bitch!”

Too many people remember Thatcher. She’s still alive for goodness sake and apparently in far better mental shape than the film suggests, according to a journalist on LBC radio who saw her last week. Those who love her think The Iron Lady doesn’t do her justice. Those who hate her think the film doesn’t do justice to the people she hurt with her politics.

So perhaps, and this is the first and last time you’d ever heard me saying this, David Cameron was right (aaahhh, sorry, I’m about to have a heart attack) when it’s too soon for this film, that it should have been released after her death. I truly think it shouldn’t have been made at all, not for another 30 years. Yes, we had films like “The Queen”, that were openly about somebody live and kicking, but Elisabeth the second has never been controversial. Everyone loves her, and the ones who don’t are just indifferent.

Funnily enough, the Brits are far readier to accept a film on their reigning queen than one about their ex Prime Minister. Thatcher is still a scorching hot subject. The New Con still adore her, the Labour still despise her, and in Scotland there are people preparing street parties to celebrate her death, which is very bad taste but it does tell you something.

But I’m sure the Americans will adore The Iron Lady, and Oscars are guaranteed.

What can I say? Go on Meryl!


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