Review - The Iron Lady is released in cinemas today - Celluloid Thatcher: not to be trusted

6th January 2012 at 00:00

A new film delivers a touching portrait of the way Alzheimer's disease can muffle a mind once striking in its clarity. As a portrait of Alzheimer's, The Iron Lady is poignant. As a biopic of one of the most significant political figures of the 20th century, however, it just does not work.

It tells the story of Margaret Thatcher, tracking her rise from grocery counter in Grantham to Cabinet table in Downing Street - in flashback as an elderly Thatcher looks back on her life.

Thus we see plucky young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) meeting with snobbery and sexism from Conservative colleagues. "You may call it fiscal responsibility," she says, undeterred. "A woman would call it good housekeeping."

Thatcher, the film would have us believe, spoke only in aphorisms. "I cannot die washing up a teacup," she tells Denis Thatcher when he proposes. And when her daughter Carol is learning to drive: "The only thing you should remember is that everyone else is reckless or inept. Usually both."

By the time she is elected MP for Finchley, she has become Meryl Streep. What follows is a speedy, superficial romp through Thatcher's political career. Her tenure as education secretary is summarised in a parliamentary debate during the 1974 miners' strike. "Teachers cannot teach when there's no heating, no lighting in their classrooms," she says.

Later, she gets a perm, changes her voice, makes one or two speeches and is elected leader of the Tories. Then a low-tech swingometer moves into the blue and she is prime minister.

The Falklands are lost and won; the Grand Hotel is bombed; the poll tax is introduced; her leadership is challenged ... Each is given about two minutes of screen time.

Streep is resplendent: she portrays Thatcher accurately, without ever sinking into parody. But her performance outclasses the film. Thatcher's politics are given no context, other than her own stubborn steeliness and Michael Foot's wild-haired attacks at Prime Minister's Questions.

And then there is the Alzheimer's. Aside from its obvious flaws as a framing device - how can we trust anything this person is remembering? - the film's depiction of the elderly Thatcher is far more nuanced than any of its political content. Instinctively, the audience feels sympathy for her: everything else, therefore, can only be seen through this filter.

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