“Being Prime Minister is a lonely job. In a sense, it ought to be: You cannot lead from the crowd. But with Denis there I was never alone. What a man. What a husband. What a friend.” – Margaret Thatcher
Old age can be a terrible thing if one’s health is compromised. More so of course if dementia sets in and one cannot enjoy one’s final years with full control of one’s mental faculties. This is particularly heart-breaking for individuals who have lived by their wits and have been an intellectual for all their lives. Not only is it confusing and exceedingly distressing for the elderly person in the process of becoming demented, but even more so is it harrowing for the friends and family who see the decline and experience the fading away of the persona of the individual they once knew, into a neutral, living, vacuous shell of the person they once were.
These and many more related thoughts were going through our mind during watching the movie we saw at the weekend, and afterwards, as we discussed it. It was the 2011 Phyllida Lloyd film “The Iron Lady”, starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent and Richard E. Grant with a screenplay by Abi Morgan. This is a famous and somewhat controversial film of the rise and decline of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, notorious during the 1980s.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, née Roberts (born 13 October 1925) is a British politician and the longest-serving (1979–1990) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of the 20th century, and the only woman ever to have held the post. A Soviet journalist nicknamed her the “Iron Lady”, which later became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style – hence the name of the film. As prime minister, she implemented conservative policies that have come to be known as “Thatcherism”.
Thatcherism introduced a series of political and economic initiatives to reverse what Thatcher perceived as Britain’s precipitous national decline. Her political philosophy and economic policies emphasised deregulation (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labour markets, the privatisation of state-owned companies, and reducing the power and influence of trade unions. Thatcher’s popularity during her first years in office waned amid recession and high unemployment, until economic recovery and the 1982 Falklands War brought a resurgence of support, resulting in her re-election in 1983. Thatcher was re-elected for a third term in 1987, but her Community Charge (popularly referred to as “poll tax”) was widely unpopular and her views on the European Community were not shared by others in her Cabinet. She resigned as Prime Minister and party leader in November 1990, after Michael Heseltine launched a challenge to her leadership. Her withdrawal from politics saw her remaining active as a public figure for a number of years.
Thatcher’s husband, Sir Denis Thatcher died on 26 June 2003 and was cremated on 3 July. She had paid tribute to him in “The Downing Street Years”, writing of their life-long devotion t one another. After collapsing at a House of Lords dinner, Thatcher was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital in central London on 7 March 2008 for tests. Her daughter Carol has recounted how she was first struck by her mother's dementia when she muddled the Falklands conflict with the Yugoslav wars; she has also recalled the pain of needing to tell her mother repeatedly that Denis Thatcher was dead…
The film concentrates on the everyday life of an elderly, dementing Margaret Thatcher who talks to the imagined presence of her recently deceased husband as she struggles to come to terms with his death. All the while, scenes from her past life, from girlhood to British prime minister, intervene. Intervene is the right word as the flashback style of storytelling used is jarring, intrusive and distracting. The scenes from young adulthood and the moments of Thatcher in action are too far and few between to really make the impact they should have. One can see that this is the screenwriter’s way of getting the viewer to understand Thatcher’s mental state as she is dementing - dementia involves an immediate and profound loss of recent memory, but as the individual goes backwards in time, the more distant memories are the ones retained the longest and most vividly. However, it is an annoying device after the first few scenes. The sporadic flashbacks among the more elongated stretches of following the elderly and mentally fragile Thatcher makes for a flawed film. Some stories are so interesting and involving that they need no device to be told. A nice beginning, middle and end suffices.
The film won a slew of awards, including two Oscars, one for Meryl Streep (deservedly) as best actress in a leading role and one for best achievement in make-up. Streep’s performance is remarkable, with accent, facial expressions and appearance being utterly convincing. She once again displays the fine gamut of her acting abilities and one can be totally transported by her into the life of Thatcher. Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher also does a fine job in the supporting role, and there is a host of other excellent supporting actors.
Overall, we were glad to watch the movie, despite its flaws. It was interesting from the point of view of a portrait of a person undergoing dementia and thus it paints a rather sympathetic portrait of Margaret Thatcher as the human being, without being too controversial. Its focus is squarely on Thatcher’s later years in decline rather than her active years as Prime Minister. I guess one should watch a documentary or two, in order to see the latter. It reminded us of the other famous film of British conservatism, “The Queen” with Helen Mirren (see my review here). There may be many who object to the film, seeing it as an invasion of Thatcher’s privacy and her supporters may indicate that the snippets of Thatcher in action are not too sympathetic to “Thatcherism”. However, this is not a political film nor is it a documentary. It is a biopic about an elderly woman who had an active and intellectual mind trying to cope with the loss of her mental faculties. As such, it is a good movie.
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