Recently a few friends and I went to the pictures and saw the Iron Lady(1).Since I’ve submitted this article to a journal with the word ‘progressive’ in its title, it should come as no surprise to guess that I don’t much care for the film. But not for the reasons you probably image.
First, I should start by making clear that I am quite capable of enjoying films about people and groups I utterly detest, if the producers do a good job. For example, two of my favourite films are Downfall and Richard III (by Ian Mckellen). I am about as far politically from both their lead characters as you can get.
Perhaps sadly I won’t be adding the ‘Iron Lady’ to that list because in short, the mechanics of the film are not very good
Since this review is going to be largely negative, I think it is only fair to start with positive aspects of the film.
Acting was, for the most part, barring a few highly noticeable exceptions, excellent. Meryl Streep mastered the appearance, mannerisms, attitude and voice of Margaret Thatcher to the point where some scenes could have been mistaken for actual footage of the former PM. In fact the voice was so good that it reminded me of the Spitting Image Puppet. Jim Broadbent was superb as an older Dennis; he was so good that I genuinely looked forward to seeing him come back on screen for another minute or so.
To put into perspective as to why that’s a great achievement, I personally disliked the real Dennis Thatcher more than Margaret. Her policies were disastrous and their execution vindictive, but I do believe that she did genuinely believe in her own ideology and that as soon as the dust had settled, she was sure she’d see the independent hardworking Britain she used to justify the damage she was causing. And I can respect her tenacity and ability to survive crisis after crisis.
But what about Dennis? He was basically a drunken bigot without any responsibility or sense to keep his views and temper moderated or private. If you were unlucky enough to catch his attention and were someone or something he didn’t like (which was most people) a flurry of insults would be hurled in your direction. He was in short nothing more than a vile little man. And yet every time I heard Jim’s voice or saw him in background, I would smile a little (more on that later).
Olivia Coleman did a good job as the dotty spoiled and sheltered Carol Thatcher. I confess I know little about the Thatcher daughter, other than a few appearances on the television and her sacking from the BBC, but what little I saw is confirmed in her performance. Almost everyone else who “stars” in the film is a talking extra at best, though there were plenty of good actors in these minor “roles” to stand out.
Richard E. Grant made the most of his small role as Heseltine. His very eyes oozed smarm, slime and ambition, which was handy given he has at most two lines in the film. Anthony Head played Geoffrey Howe, the long suffering Cabinet Minister, (he held many positions over the course of a decade and seemed to have been found wanting in all of them, only to be reminded of that at every opportunity) comes off like a school boy with self-esteem issues who has finally worn out the patience of his school teacher. I really felt sorry for him in his few scenes, as he was effectively bullied and humiliated publicly. To quote a random Tory extra “I wouldn’t treat my gamekeeper the way she treated him”. Michael Pennington was very believable as Michael Foot. I wouldn’t be surprised if his House of Commons debate dialogue was an actual quotation, too bad he had only one speaking scene.
I liked the first scenes at the beginning showing Thatcher trying to cope with both Alzheimer’s disease and living in a world that had completely moved on. And before anyone asks, no it wasn’t because of Schadenfreude but because the scenes were well shot and showed an interesting insight into mental illness and old age, and how former titans cope with being interesting irrelevant.
However, not all acting was of a high standard. In particular, the Young Thatcher and Young Dennis segments were excruciating. Margaret Thatcher was a woman and a staunch Conservative, which was a problem as the 1950’s Conservative party wasn’t exactly a hot bed of Women’s liberation. She was also the daughter of a grocer from Grantham, which in the eyes of the Tory hierarchy made her double damned as both an upstart prole and a shrill suffragette. Scenes involving her past take the obvious route of showing her as the outsider and underdog fighting against ignorance and the underestimation of her abilities. However, the actress came across as shrill and had that curious demeanor that screamed “I am both absolutely sure of my talents and yet completely terrified about the possibility that I may not measure up” or to put it another way, she came across as someone who intellectually knows her background shouldn’t matter but emotionally isn’t sure and has doubts.
It doesn’t help that the first scene, meant to establish her bravery, involves her rushing out during a German Air raid to cover up some butter. Later we see a young Thatcher and her crusade as a woman and daughter of a commoner. When she agrees to marry rich upper-class Dennis, effectively removing most of the stigma via associations of her man (I hope the feminists in the audience were taking note). You could argue that this portrayal is more realistic as she had to be a supremely arrogant young woman to go into the Conservative Party waving her fist and challenging the Chairman to a nutting contest from the word go.
This is true though unfortunately it isn’t very endearing to watch as she comes across as wide eyed and a bit dense as she recites from memory her father’s speeches (relying on a man again for starting her career I might add) word for word when she isn’t supposed to be giving a speech but having a conversation. It comes across as odd and condescending. The proposal scene is also a clear demonstration of that disconnect- Dennis proposes and assures her that she can still pursue her political career, in fact they’ll use his connections to get her a safe seat and she’ll go far. Her response? To give a mini lecture about how she won’t do the house work and that her life must mean something and that she can’t give up her political career. Huh? Was there a rewrite in the middle of the scene or did the annotation say “Margaret wasn’t really listening beyond the word marry and knew she needed to respond quickly”?
Young Dennis is even worse. His voice is constantly sulky, bordering on just holding back the tears which is annoying to listen to and he makes really weird exaggerated faces. I simply can’t explain it adequately with words but he ‘mugs’ to the camera like a pantomime caricature and exaggerates his features like another ‘Spitting Image’ puppet.
The film also has that infuriating habit that some directors, fresh out of film school, tend to fall in to, namely gratuitous ‘symbolism’. Phenomena such as playing a symphony over a scene of violence, because that’s what Kubrick did in Clockwork Orange, or splicing in reaction shorts during an argument between two characters even though its jarring, or placing a ‘magical’ moment in a film that otherwise is down to earth and realistic? Well, this film is loaded with that. As Margaret is arguing with her cabinet – insert shot of Margaret with her eyes closed in a ‘tortured’ pose; Margaret is watching a home movie – cut to the characters running out of the television screen and into her room etc.
Many scenes also desperately attempt to gain excitement by having the actors forcing drama and tension by speaking slightly quicker than normal and in constantly grave-tones, even if what they are talking about is a minor hiccup in the polls. The film also had this odd audio trick where dialogue spoken through a radio or television report would come through from only one speaker in the cinema, on the left, on the right or behind, which constantly annoyed me and took me out of what little immersion I may have had in the plot.
To help you grasp just how overloaded with edits, splices and effects the film is, after the end of the Falklands scenes, we had the victory montage and my cinema’s audio cut out. It wasn’t until they went to Thatcher giving a speech that I was sure this wasn’t another of the films ‘audio show offs’. In fact much of the film’s ‘this is important this is complex’ moments where so poorly handled they came across as comedic. I laughed a lot mostly because of the films incompetence.
Another thing that really bugs me is that the film, for no discernible reason, puts several events in the wrong order. When I first heard about this from a friend, I thought they meant since the film is a nonlinear series of flashbacks and reminisces, events were shown in the wrong order because the older Thatcher remembered them in that order. This was not the case. The Miners’ strike apparently took place before the Falklands war, which is odd given that the strike was in 1984-5 and the war was over in 1982. There really is no reason for this, the strike reference isn’t even in its own segment, it is part of a montage of dissent with other protests, rallies and riots, so it couldn’t have been that the producers were hard pressed for negatives.
I mean it is not like the 1980’s was a decade famous for unprecedented peace and harmony. Forget about all the TUC marches, Pickets and CND rallies, in 1981 alone there was the Brixton riot, the Toxteth riot, the Moss Side riot, the Chapeltown riot and the Handsworth riot. I think the answer to this little conundrum is again incompetence. They needed to include the Miners’ strike because it was the most infamous episode of the Thatcher years and best illustrates the divisive nature of her Britain. Any substantial look at the strike, in particular its ‘policing’ would quickly become indefensible and conflict with the weakly positive message of the film. And any attempt to whitewash the event would have created a storm of controversy that the makers clearly didn’t want, so they decided to just shove it in the middle somewhere and hope everyone would forget about it.
For me, what really nails the lid of the coffin shut is that even the things I liked about the film were clearly not intentional. Even the fine acting condemns the overall film. If you were to edit all of Jim Broadbent’s scenes together, including the Brighton Bombing scene, and post it onto Youtube as a fake trailer for the ‘New Irreverent Satirical Comedy- the Iron Lady’, one could be fooled. For context (spoiler alert) Dennis is of course dead which means the older Dennis, played by Broadbent, is part of Maggie’s demented hallucinations. And for some strange reason it was decided that Jim should play Dennis as a sort of attention seeking clown who often engages in slapstick physical humour (yes I am serious) which is why I enjoyed watching him. He was genuinely amusing and was supposed to be. Again I don’t know why they decided on this direction; Jim Broadbent is perfectly capable of playing a smug right wing hanger-on in love with power and making it watchable – just look at his Duke of Buckingham in Richard III for proof of that.
Another source of frequent amusement was the aforementioned inept use of arty tricks; the source of this one is clearly poor execution. I’m not joking when I say that about 50% of the “clever” scenes in the film, if taken out of context, could be placed in a sketch show with little adjustment.
In Conclusion since number ratings are all the rage for reviews, I’d give it 3 out of 10, One for Meryl Streep, another for Jim Broadbent and another for all the chuckles I had when I’m fairly certain I wasn’t supposed to.
(1) Incidentally this film was made by the now defunct UK Film Council. This is quite amusing to me (in a bitter way) given that not only was the film’s leading lady opposed to virtually all forms of state “interference”, and had herself ended similar funding tools like the Eady Levy, but also because the Council was one of the first up for the chop when Cameron and Clegg came to power.Tags: Arts, Domestic (UK)
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This post was written by R.M. Harrison