Thursday, 1 December 2011

Meryl's Maggie

Thanks to the the generosity of Premier Christian Radio, I have seen an early preview screening of the film The Iron Lady about Margaret Thatcher.  It is due to go on general release in the UK on 6 January 2012.

Now whenever you speak of Mrs T, the mention of her name always has to be followed by the parenthetic "(whatever you think of her)" as though she were the Judas-figure of some religion whose adherents are likely to be offended if these words are not appended as a matter of form.  And, figuratively speaking, that's not far from the truth of the situation.  There are people who are so blinded by their hatred of her (or perhaps, nowadays, their parents' hatred of her) that it is not possible to mention her without assuring one's listeners of - at the very least - one's disapproval.  Any intimation, however inadvertent or misleading, that the speaker might have a sneaking regard for her is solecism enough to get him or her permanently barred from social situations as diverse as afternoon bingo sessions and dinner parties in gentrified inner suburbs.  You might never be able to stand on Everton Brow or Primrose Hill again.  Extreme care is needed.  I guess that the film is going to be big, so listen out for those words "(whatever you think of her)" and have them to hand in case drawn into an unexpected conversation about it.

This demonisation depends partly on depriving her of her humanity which, to be fair, she did a pretty good job of herself.  When you adopt as a policy position if not an imperviousness then an unresponsiveness to criticism or doubt, and a preparedness to humiliate your most faithful colleagues when they falter, you are hardly going to commend your softer side to the world.  And the film contains plenty of material which shows her in that light (most notably in cabinet discussions about the poll tax).  But, inevitably, that is not the whole story.

I don't want to spoil it for you; but I don't think it will hurt to explain that the film is set in the present, in which a confused, hallucinating lonely old woman, imprisoned in her large but gloomy London flat, contemplates the disposal of the clothes of her dead (but nonetheless ever-present) husband and is haunted by flashbacks of her earlier life.  The pathos and sensitivity with which Meryl Streep plays this is extraordinary.  It is hard not to be moved by it.  Yet it is equally hard to fault her portrayal of the younger woman.  From her girlhood in the grocer's shop, through her earliest attempt to get selected as candidate, and into Parliament and Downing Street (all in the face of serious male chauvinism, it is easy to forget) Meryl's Maggie struck me as authentic as any re-creation of her could be.  Not only is her voice and accent nigh-on perfect; but her appearance is as close as I imagine you could get it without the real-life subject playing the part.  If you've ever cared for a confused elderly person you will recognise the accuracy with which Streep conveys the sheer loneliness of dementia.  Jim Broadbent is also excellent as Denis and Olivia Colman as Carol; and there a number of other good cameos (I liked Richard E Grant as Heseltine).

When the film is released, I predict a good deal of noise from those who are determined to keep her name in the mud where it belongs.  They will, I suspect, claim that it portrays her too sympathetically.  But nothing in the film will trouble the staunchness of those who need to hate her.  The point for me is that the film achieves the considerable feat of separating the person from the caricature.  This Maggie lives and breathes and grieves - and drinks quite a lot of whisky. She is simply human.  (Whatever You Think of Her.)

Photo: courtesy of

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