Meryl Streep’s Iron Lady film tells only part of Margaret Thatcher story
As the prime minister visited the Pinewood studios yesterday and spoke of the British film industry, he must have been very mindful of the big screen depiction of his predecessor, Baroness Thatcher, in The Iron Lady.
Is this film an example of the 'mainstream movies' he wants more emphasis on?
Well, Lady T is played by Meryl Streep, and actresses don't come any better, or any bigger, in box office terms.
But even she cannot make a film a blockbuster by herself, and the early indications are that this one won't be.
It's doing well, but not outstandingly so, and – in a reflection of the political divisions she caused – considerably better in the south than the north.
The film is actually much less about politics, however, than I had supposed even after reading some of the very early reviews. The emphasis is very heavily on the dementia Margaret Thatcher now suffers, and her prime – the decade in which she dominated Westminster politics from 10 Downing Street – is seen, and skimmed over, through a very cloudy prism.
Before seeing the film, I was inclined to think that David Cameron and others were being over-sensitive in expressing concern about its portrayal of the state to which the former prime minister has been reduced. But I'm now in agreement with them.
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The picture of dementia is quite graphic and relentless, and the 12-year-old daughter of a work colleague was reduced to prolonged tears by it. He had taken her to the film so she could get a better understanding of the Thatcher years; but she left the cinema mainly with a better realisation of what lies in store for her grandmother, whose mind has started to wander.
Lady Thatcher is not merely alive, but still capable to some extent of attending social functions. Not long ago she was present at a birthday celebration for Liam Fox.
In these circumstances it is not hard to understand why her family regard the film as intrusive and will have nothing to do with it.
Politically, I found the film a big disappointment. For all her brilliance – and I have never doubted it since seeing her in Sophie's Choice – Ms Streep does not quite get Lady Thatcher.
She certainly has the voice. Close your eyes and it's the former prime minister speaking. She certainly has the facial expressions. The resemblance is so strong it's almost uncanny. But the full sharpness of the cutting edge of the Thatcher mind and personality is largely missed.
Both as prime minister and leader of the opposition, Lady Thatcher was much easier (or less difficult) to admire than to like. I was at Westminster for almost all of her premiership, and I have never known anyone in politics who could so make my blood boil, even if I agreed with virtually every word being said. Her character at the time included a missionary arrogance and zeal that could reach to cruelty. Quite a few close colleagues were rewarded at times for their general loyalty by being humiliated in front of their peers or publicly.
A principal sufferer in that respect was her first chancellor of the exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe.
There is a scene in the film in which she mocks him in cabinet, and that his immediately followed by his resignation in 1990 and the Heseltine leadership bid which resulted in her being ousted.
But – very largely because of the emphasis on dementia – this is almost the only moment in it in which it is impossible to have any empathy with her. Many senior Tories would agree with Labour and Liberal (Democrat) opponents of the time, that the reality was very different.
I assume that most of the people who will go to the cinema to see the film will have some memory of the Thatcher years.
And no one too young to be in that position can emerge with a significantly better appreciation of what the main political arguments of that era were. For me (and, yes, I confess to being a political nerd) this is a major fault – not least because today's politics are so bland by comparison; just vanilla blanchmange when put alongside the raw, dripping monetarist meat of the 1980s.
The film has scenes from the miners' strike of 1984-85, and they include angry strikers and police officers locked in conflict.
But how had it come to this? Why was so much old heavy industry cut down under the rule of Lady Thatcher?
Why was she so determined to maintain an iron rule of monetary and fiscal restraint, to privatise and to move towards a laissez-faire economy? Why did she generate so much hostility and yet win three consecutive general elections?
If you don't already know much of the answer to these questions at the start of the film, you won't at the end of it.
There are some glaring omissions in terms of people as well as policy content. There is no Arthur Scargill, no Norman Tebbit, no Nigel Lawson, no Neil Kinnock and no Mikhail Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan, moreover, barely features.
The real one is briefly seen and a look-alike dances with Streep's Thatcher, but says nothing.
Some of the most dramatic moments in Lady Thatcher's career are also either left out or passed over very quickly.
One second she has decided to stand for the Tory leadership (against Ted Heath) and the next second she's won the prize. What about the actual contest? There is no recreation of the 'You turn if you want to, the lady's not for turning' speech of 1980.
And more time should have been devoted to the Howe resignation speech in the Commons and to Lady T's downfall. The excitement of that time is hard to match, and yet little of it is captured in the film.
It does much better on the Falklands war, and the scene in which Lady Thatcher and husband Denis are in their suite in the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984 when the IRA bomb goes off is astonishingly good. It was so 'real' I felt I was in the room.
A few liberties are taken with fact. Demonstrators are seen hammering on the windows of the prime ministerial car in one scene, and it seems highly unlikely to me that that would have been allowed to happen; I certainly don't recall any such thing.
The film version of the blowing up of Airey Neave in 1979, as he drove out of the Commons underground car park, has a distraught Lady Thatcher actually in the car park when the explosion occurs – and that was not the case.
Did she really ever wear one of those big hats of hers at the Commons despatch box when she was education secretary? Would her father have described himself as a Tory at an election meeting when he was said to regard himself as an old-fashioned Liberal?
None of this is to recommend, however, that you don't go to see the film. It's too short and too politically thin, and the treatment of her dementia is highly questionable.
But it does hold your attention, and Streep made me want to forgive and forget the film's deficiencies. An Oscar surely awaits.