THE LADY'S NOT FOR SPOILING
Trying to produce a biopic of Margaret Thatcher must be one of the great impossibilities of our age. Anything less than a fawning slobberfest and the Right will be out to get you, anything less than a shrieking hatchet job and the Left will be out to get you. Just as the BBC is only neutral and balanced when it's biased in your favour, so any examination of Thatcher will be absurdly one-sided unless it agrees precisely with your own point of view. In the event the only thing to do is to at least attempt to be scrupulously fair, to put the pros and cons with demonstrably equal weight. Have they managed to pull off that feat? I think they have, just about.
Should they have waited until she'd passed away before attempting a biopic? There's a measure of questionable taste in The Iron Lady's depiction of Baroness Thatcher as a lonely, confused old woman in the grip of dementia, as she talks with the long-departed Denis (Jim Broadbent), but while it's queasily uncomfortable viewing, it's not as if she's babbling incoherently and dribbling into her sandwiches in front of Countdown; she's a long way from losing her marbles yet. Various moments in the modern world - a TV report, the price of milk, photographs and other memorabilia - trigger memories of her early years in the Conservative Party and her first attempts to become an MP, up to the key moments of her tenure in Downing Street, from the Brighton bomb to the sinking of the Belgrano, her 1979 election victory to her 1990 removal.
It makes for a frustrating structure as it flits between then and now, and what it really needed was an Oliver Stone in historical shouty mode, where the film could bellow facts and opinions in your face for hours (see JFK and Nixon). Sadly they didn't have Oliver Stone, although even he's calmed down these days; they've got Phyllida Lloyd, director of Mamma Mia! (which I haven't seen and don't ever wish to) although there are points where the film does a good montage of TV news footage and reconstruction, Thatcher now and Thatcher then. As with the Stone movies there are plenty of brief appearances from familiar faces as other familiar faces - John Sessions has a few moments as Edward Heath, Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe, Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine!
There are also pacing problems: in a film that runs 105 minutes there's a lot to get through very quickly and some of it is very rushed. We see Michael Foot once, Kinnock is reduced to one line of voiceover, Scargill isn't even namechecked and the fateful membership ballots are passed over too quickly for us to feel enough of their impact. BUT: Streep is terrific, as you'd expect, and it earns points for not choosing the easy, lazy option of taking potshots at an old woman. And the makeup for the elderly Thatcher is superb. It's not a perfect film, but it's a fascinating piece of recent history dramatised, and there are elements of an intriguing character study. Not an outright success, but it's a damned good start to the New Year.