Iron Lady – hagiography of an evil woman

imageIt seemed oddly appropriate to be watching a film about Thatcher in my local cinema in Wood Green, North London writes Richard Willmsen. Not only was the area (branded as ‘Shopping City’) recently the scene of extensive loooting by youth driven mad with frustration at their failure to take part in the great consumer society; it was also the setting for the recent film ‘Dreams of a Life’, which told the true story of a woman who was found dead in 2006 in an apartment in the same complex as Wood Green’s mall. Her body had lain undiscovered for three years, and the film traces how a vibrant young woman could slowly and sadly drift away from all contact with friends and family in a city where shopping is the only means of acquiring any sense of identity and belonging.

If there is one individual who can more than any other be held responsible for the collapse of communities and social solidarity in the UK it is Margaret Thatcher.

Odd, then, that a group of filmmakers who were avowedly no fans of her politics (director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan) should choose, and choose this moment, to present a film which encourages us to sympathise with the former Prime Minister on a personal level.

It is not remotely a bad film: the acting is superb, the script is tight and, one presumes, the on-set catering was almost certainly top-notch. And there are some pointed digs at her politics, particularly in relation to the wider effects of the cuts that Thatcher imposed; also, the opening scene, in which a visibly confused and physically decrepit Thatcher pops out for some milk and experiences first-hand the rude and uncaring society that she did so much to create, can be read as a criticism. But on the whole there is very little that even the most fundamentalist Thatcherite would have a problem with. The intention is clearly b to make us sympathise with her as an increasingly helpless individual.

At least when US filmmaking Oliver Stone depicted Richard Nixon as a widely misunderstood hippy, his subject’s political legacy was dead and buried and his reputation in tatters, whereas this same is not even remotely true for Thatcher. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to challenge themselves, and us, to think more carefully about someone not usually seen as entirely human. By contrast, the recent TV biopic of Fred West did not attempt the same treatment of its subject, although it must be acknowledged that he was responsible for the murders of considerably fewer Argentinians than Thatcher.

And so the woman who declared there was no such thing as society, and then tried to prove her point by smashing it to pieces, is portrayed as well-meaning and genteel, Sadly we do not get to see her in her addled dotage pissing in her cornflakes and pouring milk down the toilet as the inevitable hysterical hype in the Mail and Telegraph suggested we would. one can only conclude that the filmmakers are devoid of any political intelligence whatsoever in releasing such a film right now in the current climate of pure Thatcherism. Mind you I have to admit that I can’t wait for the sequel, in which she actually dies. Go and see ‘Dreams of a Life’ (or the equally wonderful ‘The Artist’, for that matter) instead and give this utterly misguided hagiography of an evil, evil woman a very wide berth.


  1. I agree with Richard that the film has its qualities. Streep captures Thatcher superbly and the way her life is revisited through the prism of deepening dementia is an interesting way of doing a story most people over a certain age know quite well. However it loses some pace after the first hour and the flashback technique can’t entirely get over the predictability of it all. Not a great film then although I thought it was better than the saccharine Kings Speech.

    I thought the women’s team behind the film did manage to capture the contradictions of Thatcher’s historic rise within the Tory party and her effectiveness as a leader of her class. It showed how her petty-bourgeois background as a grocer’s daughter with all its self-made, individualist ideology was the framework in which her ‘deformed’ feminism operated. Individually, as a woman, she took on the male tory grandees but never really promoted feminist policies or supported women in her own party – look at the male cabinets she ruled over. Whatever her expressed feminism or the impact of her anti-working class politics on women no one can deny the impact of her becoming prime minister on the role of women in politics – that’s a paradox that isn’t really all that much different from the relationhsip between Obama and black people. However little Obama is doing for Black people, his position affects black people in politics in a positive way.

    Of course in the movie you could argue that looking at her life from the dementia standpoint just generates sympathy for her and is a cover up of her actual political impact. While there is some truth in that I think the way the film showed Thatcher’s attitude to her daughter and the way she coldly treated everyone (e.g. Howe) except Dennis and her father does not provoke a lot of sympathy in the audience.

    On another level the film brilliantly captures the rancour of old age and how dementia is lived on a daily basis. Anyone with aged relatives will find that insightful in my opinion. The film does not particularly glorify her political achievements – in fact it often treats them in rather perfunctory background way.

    Other films are needed that express and analyse the historical defeats working people suffered under her as well as the connections between her ideology and new labour. Just because this particular film does not have a ‘line’ denouncing her politics does not mean it is of no interest. A lot of great art and culture does not really deal accurately with the politics of a period but they give us insights and emotion that help us understand the period in different ways.

  2. Wow Dave, “Just because this particular film does not have” a line” denouncing her politics does not mean it is of no interest” could give us “insights”.
    This is Thatcher, who privatised the care homes, do we get an insight in to this from a film, half of which is in her old age? Her dementia is with an aide, “lived on a daily basis”. Its also her family, I would treat Carol Thatcher that way, but you feel sorry for her. Cuddly jim Broadbent plays Denis Thatcher, your joking.The flashbacks are all from her point of view, Irish Republicans bombing eyc. not what her Govt. did in Ireland. Meryl Streep interviewed afterwards said that she had some sympathy for Thatcher.
    This is no chance, the film is linked in to Gordon Browns call for a State Funeral.
    Its an awful film, that uses every gimmick, a Parliament without a single other woman MP. Every male Cabinet member speaks against her except Airey Neave who is blown up, and Howe who she betrays. Where was her group of Cabinet people? They existed, they created the plan to defeat the organised workers, they created the education policies etc.
    But you can leave all this out because she has dementia.
    So it looks like a woman against the world, sticking to her shopkeepers principles, what an invention. Didn’t the supermarkets destroy great swathes of small shops in her time? Didn’t she destroy swathes of industry, the people that supported her represented finance capital, and Blair and Brown continued her light touch policy.
    A young person going to the cinema deserves a proper accounting, and they deserve Socialist Resistance denouncing this awful film as a conscious effort to resurrect Thatcher.

  3. I thought I would receive this sort of response – in you look at the debate on the Counterfire website it is very similar stuff. Everything you say about Thatcher is correct, indeed I said nothing contrary in the comment. Niether do I express particular sympathy for carol thatcher. I just think you fall into a very narrow way at looking at any art whether it is a film or a pointing or anything else. You have to first try and analyse within what the director is trying to do and at least listen to her position on it. You simply toss the film into a conspiracy pot connected to state funeral plans. The ambiguity of the sympathy I highlighted has also been shown in the lukewarm response by the rightwing press. This film is not being touted about as some sort of rehabilitation or tory triumphalism. You misunderstand my point about small shopkeeper ideology – I think it does help explain her particular attitudes as a women within the tory context of the time. Most reflective feminists also accept the objective impact of Thatcher as a womam leader without agreeing with her politics. Are you denying that it shows the reality of dementia in an effective way? Just because it is Thatcher and it does not show how class affects the care you get does not invalidate the cinematic artistry of it. I mean people can make their own links on these things, they know that Thatcher is privileged and has live in care.
    I remember a similar debate about Cimino’s The Deerhunter – one of the greatest films about the impact of Vietnam on working class america that was denounced by some on the left because it showed some vietcong as being inhumanly cruel. The young person going to the cinema needs to have a critical approach that does not level everything to a crude political level. If I also remember correctly Trotsky polemicised against a mechanically political, too manichean view of art and literature. Given that there are not too many Ken Loach movies out there it would be difficult for us on the radical left to engage discussion about most films that people watch.

  4. I have only just seen the film – it came out later in Paris, I haven’t had time. The thing that struck me was the way it showed Britain under Thatcher as such a violent country: riots, strikes, wars. (Only at one point when there was a sequence showing newspaper headlines was there any indication that it was also considered as a time of prosperity.)

    This was quite interesting as in France where we have a lot of strikes and protests Britain is always considered as very passive – which is of course the history since the miners’ strike although this strike itself got very little specific mention and I don’t think Scargill was mentioned once.

    I don’t think it was hagiography. The hagiography of saints I grew up reading never had a critical word to say about the subjects. This had many – not just the forced resignation but both from her family and from her political colleagues.

    But it is true I had the same feeling as for the film J. Edgar – showing people old and failing awakes sympathy. But for the person as a person not their political positions. From that point of view it is much less of hagiographic than Evita (the only thing Madonna has ever done I have thought worth watching/listening to nevertheless).

    The point on which I think there is an attempt to win sympathy despite poitical position (real hagiography in my opinion) is on the feminist angle. Yes we do feel sympathy for her in that selection committee and some discussion with Denis. But of course the point is made in an OTT way by showing her as the only women in the House of Commons does anybody remember the women in her candidate or on the Labour front bench) – that annoyed me as well.

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