Him: (slathering tomato ketchup over his food) “I used to be Prime Minister.”
Me: (pouring derision on top) “Don’t be silly. You need to slosh H.P. Sauce, wear a Gannex raincoat and stick a pipe between your lips before you even begin to look like Harold Wilson.”
This knock-about domestic routine may refer to the late U.K. Labour P.M.’s dementia, but more recent tea-time jokes have centred more on what’s being suffered now by his most famous Conservative Party successor, Margaret Thatcher.
This is the trouble with The Iron Lady; two rather lesser beings than Meryl Streep’s Mrs Thatcher – Abi Morgan (screenplay) and Phyllida Lloyd (director) – attempt to squeeze her immensely complex personality and Olympic-sized life of almost 87 years into a mere two hours of flash-back cameos. What’s more, they’re unsure whether to treat Lady Thatcher’s present condition seriously or to leave it to Jim Broadbent’s ghostly, comic Denis to re-play her story just for laughs.
I think both the production and ‘Mrs T’ herself would be better served by a no-nonsense, linear approach. This would reflect her demanding and practical public persona without detracting an iota from her deep warmth as a wholly affectionate if firm but fair wife and mother.
Still, the film scores highly in its portrayal of her struggle to smash through the barriers of gender, class and power well before modern feminism and the ‘glass ceiling’ became matters of debate. This explains why she distanced herself from political feminism. She achieved everything alone; why should she have propped up anyone else?
It also shows that she was very much her father’s daughter, and that she accomplished plenty by dint of single-minded hard work despite being blessed with the type of intellect that may make others lazy. But she did not heed her own advice – about knowing when to go. So her downfall, like that of the greatest leaders throughout history, was through personal failing. It came from hubris.
Non-Brits who have viewed the film wonder if she was ever so fantastically rude to and officious with colleagues and others in reality? Of course. This is how phrases like ‘to give someone a “hand-bagging”’ (a severe scolding) or to describe someone as “wet” (weak, and vacillating) have entered the modern English language.
Was she a good wife and mother? Certainly. She and my own mother were born in the same year (1925). So I may confirm without fear of contradiction that it was a badge of honour for women of that era and middle-class, hard-working, self-made British tradition, to feed, clothe and educate a family with loving, efficient care .
The film shows that Margaret Thatcher used these basic principles in office; they were often unattractive to people from other walks of life but that they were largely effective. An early scene depicts the young Margaret Roberts agreeing to marry Denis but warning that she could not abide a simple housewife’s life. Sadly – and a mite cheaply – the final scene shows her rinsing a teacup in the loneliness of the London flat she once shared with him.
Despite my several caveats, I consider The Iron Lady to be a fascinating piece of work that I hope to watch many times again. Meanwhile, if Streep does not win the Oscar for ‘Best Actress’ at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, I’ll indulge in a monumental sulk – and someone else will make the tea!