Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Iron Lady (DJ Films/Pathé/Goldcrest/Ciné Cinéma/Film4/Canal+/U.K. Film Council, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Iron Lady is a fascinating and also frustrating movie in that the filmmakers, director Phyllida Lloyd (a respected British stage veteran but one whose only previous film credit was for Mamma Mia!, the light musical based on Abba’s songs (and which also featured the star of The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep) and screenwriter Abi Morgan, decided to devote at least half of the screen time to Thatcher in her dotage, suffering from Alzheimer’s and in particular beset by the delusion that her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) is not only alive but in the house with her and being so bothersome that at one point, displaying the slippage between various levels of consciousness and awareness of reality characteristic of Alzheimer’s, she tells him he’s dead just to get him to go away. In between the scenes of Thatcher in her (relatively) current state are interspersed flashbacks into What Made Maggie Run, from her early days as a grocer’s daughter surviving air raids in World War II to her first run for Parliament in 1954, her success in the next election, her rise within the Conservative Party, her reputation for boldness and unwillingness to compromise, her ultimate election as Prime Minister in 1979 and her tumultuous eleven years in that office, in which she served longer than anyone else in the 20th century, until she finally stepped down because her ideological rigidity was seen by her fellow Conservative leaders as ensuring defeat in the next election.

I remember living through the Thatcher years, which roughly overlapped the Reagan and Bush I years in the U.S. (Thatcher’s term was 1979 to 1990, Reagan and Bush I between them held the U.S. presidency from 1981 to 1993), and I’ve often quoted her famous comment (oddly, left out of Morgan’s script) that “There is no such thing as ‘society,’ there are only individuals” as a pithy one-sentence summary of the essence of the modern-day Right: the idea that you’re on your own, you have to make it (or not) on your own merits and willingness to work, and that while it’s O.K. if friends, family members or churches are willing to help you when you’re in need, there is no justification for government taking the taxes paid by the “producers” and using them to fund social-welfare programs. The film has been criticized on the Left — The Guardian, an openly progressive British publication with a minority audience but one far greater than any news medium with similar politics in the U.S., denounced it as propaganda for the current Conservative Party — and also by some pro-Thatcher people for spending at least half its running time showing the old, dotty Thatcher rather than the (relatively) young, vigorous one. I remember reading a Los Angeles Times op-ed by a former Conservative M.P. who worked with Margaret Thatcher and who — unlike some of the movie critics who reviewed The Iron Lady — praised screenwriter Morgan precisely for not giving Thatcher a deep “inner life” that would have supposedly explained her politics and the ferocity with which she pursued him. I’m unable to locate this article or the name of its author (the Los Angeles Times Web site is being singularly unhelpful) but his point was that the public Margaret Thatcher was the real Margaret Thatcher: the reason the movie didn’t show her as having any inner depths is because she didn’t — what you saw was what you got.

And what you got, at least according to this movie, was a woman whose Right-wing political views were inculcated in her by her father, a grocer (I couldn’t help but note the irony that the other most famous English person whose father was a grocer was Alfred Hitchcock), who lectured her incessantly while she was growing up (in these early scenes Thatcher — or Margaret Roberts, to use her unmarried name — is played by Alexandra Roach, and the double casting is so convincing that Roach, Streep and the film’s casting director, Nina Gold, all deserve credit for leaving us not altogether sure where Roach’s performance leaves off and Streep’s begins) about how terrible unions were and how people ought to help each other but the government shouldn’t. At least according to this movie, Margaret Thatcher seems to have got her political ideology flash-frozen from her father and accepted all his ideas as if he had brought them back from Mount Sinai chiseled in stone. It’s fascinating to watch the scenes of Thatcher as P.M. — devastatingly self-confident, displaying the usual movie hero’s 100 percent rectitude and invincibility as she cows her lily-livered colleagues into submission (the rebellion within the Conservative leadership that ultimately cost her the prime ministership seems to come out of left field), smashes Britain’s vaunted trade unions, privatizes much of the British economy and ultimately imposes a national poll tax with rhetoric that has been copied by most of the Republican Presidential candidates this year: that even the poorest people in the country ought to pay something to the government because if they don’t, they won’t have a stake in society and therefore they’ll be willing to trash it. One of the worries I had in watching a film about Margaret Thatcher was whether I’d end up rooting for her — after all, it’s a movie convention (and a dramatic convention well before movies existed) to root for the underdog hero taking on the forces of entrenched corruption and resisting the siren’s call of “compromise,” and that’s how Thatcher is depicted here — and it was interesting to read that among the people who shared my doubts about the movie was its star, Meryl Streep.

On her (not the film’s) page there are a number of fascinating quotes from her about the role: “I still don’t agree with a lot of her policies. But I feel she believed in them and that they came from an honest conviction, and that she wasn’t a cosmetic politician just changing make-up to suit the times. … She’s still an incredibly divisive figure, but you miss her clarity today. It was all very clear and up front, and I loved that eagerness to mix it up and to make it about ideas. Today it’s all about feelings. You know, ‘How do I come off?’ and, ‘Does this seem O.K.?’ You want people who are willing to find a solution” — a line that is curiously echoed in Morgan’s script, which has Thatcher saying, “‘How do you feel?’ / ‘Oh, I don’t feel comfortable.’ / ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, we the group, we’re feeling … ’ Do you know, one of the greatest problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas? Now, thoughts and ideas, that interests me.” Streep also said of Thatcher, “I admire the fact that she was a ‘love-me-or-hate-me’ kind of leader who said: ‘This is what I stand for.’ It’s a hard thing to do and no one’s doing that now” — though one of the things that made George W. Bush so successful is that he, like Thatcher (and Ronald Reagan, who projected an aura of uncompromising Right-wing rectitude even though he did a lot of compromising and conciliating when he was in office — with the curious result that both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. claim Reagan’s legacy, the Republicans pointing to how he spoke and the Democrats to what he did), was unflinching in what he said and what he believed (or at least what he said about what he believed), to the point where when he was running for re-election in 2004 there were a lot of people who told pollsters that they didn’t necessarily agree with everything he stood for but at least they knew what it was, whereas they weren’t sure what John Kerry stood for, if anything.

This has been one of the great frustrations for progressives and Leftists in American politics since at least 1980 (though I would trace the conservative dominance of the U.S. electorate back 12 years before that, to 1968, when between them Richard Nixon and George Wallace won 57 percent of the presidential vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent, thereby ending the New Deal coalition and putting together the Right-wing majority that has effectively dominated American politics since): the Republicans have offered clear alternatives and bold visions, and have had the kind of history-is-on-our-side self-righteousness that in the 1930’s was shown on both the Right and the Left, while the three Democrats who have served as President since 1968 (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) have if anything seemed ashamed of their party’s progressive heritage (both the reality of how Democratic Presidents governed in the 1930’s and 1960’s and the myth that still surrounds the Democrats of that era and makes them seem more radical in retrospect than they were, or could have been given the constraints of politicians under capitalism) and anxious to run away from it to establish their bona fides as “reasonable” moderates. I think this was what I was getting at when I shocked some of my friends in 2008 by saying, “I love Sarah Palin!” — hastening to add, of course, that I loathed everything she stood for, but that I thought she was a powerful and authentic political leader and I wished our side had someone like her. It’s impossible to watch The Iron Lady as someone on the political Left and not wish our side had more people like Margaret Thatcher, more people not only convinced that their ideals are correct but that willing to go to bat for them, to risk their political futures standing up for them and, in the face of reversals, to double down on their ideals rather than hastily retreating from them.

As a movie, The Iron Lady spends too much time in Margaret Thatcher’s sickroom — I think it would have been stronger if they had shown the aged dementia sufferer only at the beginning and the ending and otherwise gone for straight chronology — and it works as a tour de force for Meryl Streep (it won the only two Academy Awards it was nominated for, one for Streep’s performance and one for the makeup people who transformed her into an utterly convincing simulacrum of the middle-aged and old Thatcher) and as a powerful drama, some of which hit home for me (it’s hard to watch, unmoved, when a woman finally packs up the old clothes left behind by her dead husband for shipment to charity — a politically “safe” one, Oxfam — and, at least according to the script, by doing so exorcises her husband’s annoying ghost and is finally able to reconcile herself to his death — especially given that I’ve gone through a similar experience myself lately!) while some of it just seemed annoying, though I can certainly relate to Streep’s defense of the film against the critics who said it spent too much time with Thatcher in her sickroom and not enough time with her on the hustings: “I have always liked and been intrigued by older people and the idea that behind them lives every human trauma, drama, glory, jokes, love. … If you think that debility, delicacy, dementia are shameful, if you think that the ebbing of a life is something that should be shut away, if you think that people need to be defended from these images then — yes — then you’ll think it’s a shameful thing.”