January 13 2012

The Thatcher Movie: To See, Or Not To See?

Charlotte Hays

If you are an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, you are possibly struggling, as am I, over whether to bite the bullet and go see, “The Iron Lady,” the biopic starring Meryl Streep as Lady Thatcher.

The film, as you no doubt know, features the only woman ever to become Prime Minister of Great Britain in lonely old age, afflicted with dementia and engaging in imaginary conversations with her late husband, Denis.

Many, including current Prime Minister David Cameron, have said that they regard this presentation as disrespectful and that the movie should not have been made while Lady Thatcher is still alive.   

Virginia Postrel, one of my favorite writers, argues in a column on Bloomberg, however, that this framing isn’t intrinsically disrespectful and doesn’t diminish Thatcher’s accomplishments. Something else is wrong with the film:

The problem, rather, is that grafted on to what could be an affecting story of greatness and decline is an invidious, and gratuitous, moral. Call it the Gospel According to Anna Quindlen, the writer and columnist who enshrined its maxims in a commencement speech she wrote in 1999 and eventually turned into the best-selling book “A Short Guide to a Happy Life.” “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in the office,” she instructed. “Don’t ever forget the words my father sent me on a postcard last year: ‘If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.’”

According to Postrel, the film presents Thatcher as such a rat who is enduring a kind of “karmic payback” for having pursued greatness at the expense—at least in the movie—of her family.

Apparently, the two-hour opus doesn’t depict any of the actions that made Thatcher one of the great world figures of her day. She is seen ignoring her twin children, who, in reality, having been born in 1953, were hardly toddlers when she began her political ascent.    

Postrel sums it up:

 In the days of the old Hollywood Code, female characters were inevitably punished if they strayed from traditional sexual mores. Today, female characters (and many men as well) must suffer if they violate a different, unwritten code. This new code declares that one’s worth depends on personal relationships, not public actions, and that sacrificing family time for the sake of achievement is nothing but short-sighted selfishness. Hollywood enforces the Gospel According to Anna Quindlen….

Hollywood has no trouble with public women as long as they are hereditary monarchs, who have no choice about their role. It can deal with the power of Elizabeth I, who had to rule to survive. But the more democratic, liberal power that arises from the combination of ambition, competence and popular appeal -- the power of a Margaret Thatcher or, for that matter, a Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada” (another Streep character) - - is more problematic. A grocer’s daughter who becomes prime minister could be anyone (even if she is in fact an extraordinarily gifted person). Her ambition thus casts doubt on the audience’s own choices, or at the very least poses an alternative to them. Some people do in fact die regretting their unfulfilled ambitions and uncompleted work. The Gospel According to Anna Quindlen is not always true.

I have to say that Postrel’s take, brilliant though it is, initially surprised me—I had thought the movie would paint an entirely picture: Here was a woman who was great precisely because she didn’t stay at home and bake cookies but instead went out to conquer the world. No feminine mystique angst here! Of course, the movie would make it clear that her policies were dreadful!

If Postrel's take is right, we have entered yet another wave of feminism, a more touchy feely version.

John O’Sullivan, who was a speechwriter for Thatcher and knew her quite well, is interested in the feminist angle. He writes that  the imaginary Denis is key to understanding this. Although the historical Denis Thatcher was proud and supportive of his wife, the movie Denis believes that she was “always alone” and motivated by raw ambition:

He is presented here as the spokesman for the confused paradox at the heart of this film. It is an anti-feminist film insofar as it depicts Margaret Thatcher as the prototypical feminist career woman careless toward her family. And it is a feminist film insofar as it shows her defeating the massed ranks of prejudiced maledom to get to the top. 

This paradox itself rests on a mystery: How on earth did Margaret Thatcher get elected to the leadership of a Tory party here composed entirely of male chauvinists?

Well, of course, because they weren’t male chauvinists. Sure, there were some. No doubt about it. But, I gather from John's piece, that the movie Tories are considerably more benighted than the real Tories. But who is Denis in the movie?

If “Denis” is not Denis, then, who is he? As a hallucination produced by her mind/imagination/conscience, he is presumably a reflection of the inmost “feelings” that, as she boldly tells her doctor, she distrusts (preferring “thoughts”). But has anybody heard Mrs. Thatcher express the “feelings” relayed through “Denis,” either today or before she began to suffer the ravages of age? None of her friends or former colleagues can remember her doing so. Nor do they ring true as typically “her.” And that being the case, “Denis” is really a ventriloquist’s dummy for the scriptwriter and director.

Still, John praises Streep’s “uncannily accurate performance” that “goes far beyond brilliant imitation.”

And, as John says, it’s “only a story,” though, I gather, not necessarily Lady Thatcher's true story.

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