Streep’s shallow take on Thatcher

By Nicholas Wapshott
December 12, 2011

By Nicholas Wasphott
The views expressed are his own.

When it was announced Meryl Streep was to play Margaret Thatcher in the movie biography “The Iron Lady,” to be released here on December 30 and in Britain a week later, the main topic among politicos and movie buffs was whether the Oscar-winning actress, for all her skills, would do the bossy British prime minister justice. There are no worries on that score. Streep’s impersonation is uncannily accurate. With the help of face padding and voice coaching, Thatcher is portrayed as few have ever seen her. And there lies the problem.

Streep plays Thatcher in her lonely dotage, suffering from crippling dementia, patronized by her carers and her daughter Carol, slipping in and out of a living nightmare where her dead husband Denis appears then disappears before her eyes. In flashbacks she recalls the heady days of her premiership, when she championed the removal of trade union privileges, sold off state assets to reduce the size of government, brought to a temporary end the grip the landed aristocrats held over the Conservative Party leadership, and restored British national pride by retaking by force the distant sheep-ridden Falkland Islands from the Argentines.

But it is the chilling image of a once dominant leader reduced to a fumbling, mumbling old crone that is the movie’s main theme and, while it may pass muster as a sly piece of brutal political theater, as a record of Thatcher and her many achievements, both for good and ill, it is a pitiless, poisonous travesty. Streep has lent her extraordinary acting skills to perhaps the most shameful and cruel piece of political revenge ever to have made it to the screen.

Would Henry Fonda have volunteered his name and faultless reputation to “The Deranged Mr. Lincoln”? Anthony Hopkins dignified Oliver Stone’s somber “Nixon” by trying to get beneath the skin of the paranoid president brought down by his private demons. Even Josh Brolin in Stone’s hilarious “W” made America’s most contentious president in recent times a likeable, surprisingly complex eldest son yearning to show his father he was worthy of winning the White House.

What were the producers of “The Iron Lady” thinking? The money is mostly British, with a little French added, topped off by a deal with the anglophile Harvey Weinstein, and the movie is intended primarily for a British audience. In America, Thatcher retains a great deal of her sheen and is fondly recalled as a plain-talking, energetic, charismatic office wife to Ronald Reagan. In Britain, however, she remains largely a political pariah, a ruthless, heartless, domineering battle-axe whose toxic inheritance left the next three subsequent Conservative leaders unelectable.

The makers of “The Iron Lady” do little to disabuse the British of their visceral dislike of the woman they elected three times prime minister. Despite hiring Thatcher biographer John Campbell as an adviser, they appear not to have consulted him much. They have little understanding of politics, particularly Conservative politics, as it is played at Westminster. And they misunderstand what made Thatcher so different from her predecessors.

It was not just that she overthrew the male toffs who believed they were born to rule – after an interval of less than 20 years they have bounced back in force in David Cameron’s government – but she took the most successful political party in the western world, whose leaders would do and say anything to get elected, and burdened it with a Hayekian ideology.

It is in the context of Thatcher sharply reducing the size of the state that the violence between picketers and police and the poll tax riots that punctuated her reign can be best understood. There is a high political price to be paid for redrawing the boundaries between the private and public sectors, and for deliberately provoking a recession, in the face of well organized opposition. In “The Iron Lady,” the newsreel shots of cars burning and mounted police beating miners with batons are left unexplained.

Elements of Thatcher’s slow progress in the male-dominated party she chose to join are misrepresented. Her father was not a mean-minded shopkeeper spouting a free market mantra at the birth of the welfare state; on the contrary, he, like the rest of the wartime generation, wanted to avoid a return to the horrors of Thirties laissez-faire. Nor was Thatcher a petty bourgeois outsider pressing her nose against the mullioned windows of stately homes. Before she ran against Edward Heath for the Tory leadership in 1975, she had for 20 years been an Oxford accented Tory housewife-cum-MP, fully assimilated into the bourgeoisie.

Women appear to be the driving force behind “The Iron Lady.” The screenplay is by Abi Morgan, who wrote the TV series “The Hour,” and the director Phyllida Lloyd, who made the movie musical “Mama Mia.” That two successful women should so eagerly diminish Britain’s first woman prime minister, who is helpless to defend herself, may stem from Thatcher’s tart remark, “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib.”

Messrs Morgan and Lloyd seem to have forgotten that Thatcher was a feminist by example, who is also said to have asked, “Why is there no female word for puerile?” Whatever that word is could be most aptly applied to the makers of this shallow, spiteful movie.

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of “Thatcher” and “Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage.” His “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics,” is published by W W Norton.

PHOTO: Actress Meryl Streep arrives for the premiere of her movie “The Iron Lady” in Washington November 29, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

8 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

it is a pitiless, poisonous travesty…. the most shameful and cruel piece of political revenge

In a way, that is a great example of what Thatcherism really was. Pitiless, poisonous, cruel and vengeful.

Politically successful. Remarkable that initial success could be achieved in a woman’s frame, but I think there was a reluctance to end her career soon enough in part because she was a woman. The Tory party still refer to the ending of her career as ‘matricide’.

But there was no intellectual depth to Thatcherism. Mrs Thatcher was openly distrustful of intellectualism. Only those around her ever felt a need to justify themselves in terms other than raw self interest.

Posted by DafyddTaylor | Report as abusive

One of the principal reasons that drama exists is that documentary is usually not very entertaining.

Perhaps you could redress the balance by writing the screenplay for a biographical movie which more closely corresponds to your view of the world, and find some backing to make and distribute it?

Posted by IanKemmish | Report as abusive

A great lady being diminished by very much lesser mortals.She and Nancy wrote the script in real life and Ronnie played his part. Together won the Cold War.

Posted by canadapatriot5 | Report as abusive

Thanks for the heads up. I guess I won’t be watching it then. Spread the word.

Posted by Jesusland | Report as abusive

Didn’t Thatcher also fight a war with a country to save her political career condemning many young British and Argentine men to death? That seems to have slipped from the reviewers memory. Certainly she started the service-industry focus in the UK that collapsed the manufacturing economy and brought banking to number one. Seems like a great decision now? Ummm. She a nasty destructive political fighter and deserves to be ridiculed. I hope this also embarrasses the middle class who elected her so many times and saw their saving destroyed in the long run.

Posted by nicfulton | Report as abusive

Whatever Thatcher’s faults, it was largely due to the joint efforts of herself, Reagan, and Pope John Paul II that the Berlin Wall fell.

Posted by FletchNZ | Report as abusive

There has not been a leader of her stature since. We in Europe lived in awe of the British prime minister and wished our leaders were half as good.

Posted by pavlaki | Report as abusive

Have just returned from the cinema to watch ‘Iron Lady’ and felt deeply distressed that such a brutal depiction of a once courageoous British Prime Minister should have been sanctioned during her lifetime. The movie demeans the achievements of this fantastic woman in reaching the top in a man’s world nor does it pay more than glancing homage to her critical presence on the world stage during the defeat of Soviet communism. Shame, shame, shame!

Posted by rafferty5268 | Report as abusive