It is not often that I go to moving picture palaces, and when I do I am saddened that the new kind of “multiplex” cinemas are not palaces at all. I may be indulging nostalgia (defined as “history after a few drinks”), but theatres do seem to have shrunk to fit the quality of most films today. There are computer games in the lobby now, audiences wear t-shirts, and a small box of popcorn costs six dollars. I once told Martin Scorcese that I saw no point in watching any film after Greer Garson retired, and he politely, and I hope not patronizingly, said that he could understand my point. The last time I went to a pastiche of a moving picture palace was to see The King’s Speech, which was far better than I expected, save for Timothy Spell who portrayed Churchill as a gargoyle. It was not his fault, but that of the screenwriter David Seidler, that Churchill was represented as a champion of the Duke of York when if fact he encouraged the Prince of Wales.
There is a lot of that sort of historical confection in this film, especially in its chronology. But there are so many flashbacks or dream sequences that it seems churlish to fault the film for mixing up political events and making a jumble of various bombings and strikes The big mistake was to base the screenplay on the theme of Denis Thatcher compulsively coming back from the dead and chatting up Margaret, often to her understandable consternation. This is sheer vanity on the part of the writer Abi Morgan, who must have wanted to be clever. At least Phyllida Lloyd, and not he, was the director. In the filmed biography of St. Josemaria Escriva, There Be Dragons, Roland Joffe was both screenwriter and director, introducing the bizarre sub-theme of a confusing, invented character who dies in an intensive care ward with very bad make-up. The result was disastrous, which is not the case with the Thatcher film, although Denis begins as a spook, persists as an annoyance, and blessedly quits just seconds before you want to shoot him — if ghosts can be shot.
Remarkably, this film distributed by the Weinstein Company and starring a woman who is no Thatcherite, honestly gives some splendid Tory, nay, civilized exhortations on the ethics of work, responsibility and human freedom. Thatcher was spot on about the Euro and the European Union, for this is the lady who said: “The day of the artificially constructed megastate is gone.” She who told Bush ’41 not to go wobbly during the Persian Gulf crisis would have to use a respirator for our current Commander-in-Chief. In a short time after assuming office, she turned the British economy around, defanged rapacious trades unions, hacked away giant government deficits and reduced inflation from 27% to 2.5%. She was not the emotional and almost hysterical figure that sometimes commands the screen (like some caricature of her) in the form of “wets’ like Geoffrey Howe and Michael Haseltine. Every so often, political correctness disfigures the legacy, when the script has her sneering at wifery and housekeeping as inferior to public office. Absurdly, she is shown driving to her first day in the House of Commons ignoring the cries of her twin children. She began her marriage vowing that she would not spend her life washing teacups, but the film closes with her doing just that. She did like tea, after all.
When the official journal of the Soviet Army called her an “Iron Lady,” Mrs. Thatcher put on a red gown and turned the insult into a brag. Having won three elections, she wore a red dress as she left 10 Downing Street betrayed by timorous cabinet members who proved that women make excellent women, but men do not.
This could have been a very fine film, had it avoided that silliness of the Denis hallucination and investigated the tense relationship between the First Lord of the Treasury, aka Prime Minster, and Queen Elizabeth II. For a “biopic” of a Prime Minister not once to mention the Queen, is, save for differences in domestic morals, like a life of Colbert with no reference to Louis XIV. After all the court intrigue and gossip, the fact is that the Queen has ordered that when the time comes, Margaret Thatcher shall be the first non-royal woman in British history to be given a state funeral. Previously, she bestowed on Denis Thatcher the most recent hereditary title given outside the royal family. Pope John Paul II, whose tomb Baroness Thatcher visited with Paul Johnson, appears just once in a quick flash of a small photograph on a table, and Reagan is see dancing with Thatcher for a couple of seconds, artfully choreographed by computer magic. Americans are caricatured as pompous warlords in a brief scene with the U.S. Secretary of State. Alexander Haig did engage in “shuttle diplomacy” between Argentina and Britain in 1982, and the conversation portrayed may be pretty accurate, but Matthew Marsh is even more unlike Haig than the attempt at Churchill in The King’s Speech. There is no reference to the asymmetric policies of Haig and Reagan. We are not shown the Baroness Thatcher attending Reagan’s funeral with a dignity beyond the exactions of her decreasing strength. She does read the “Prayer of Saint Francis” (which was not in fact prayed by St. Francis), but otherwise religion is not shown touching her Methodist soul.
Meryl Streep is not the star of the film, she is the film. This is a problem, because her mimicry of Thatcher is so flawless (save for once or twice when one Streep seems to be channeling her inner Julia Child) that the film is like a moving waxworks museum, weird as an old Vincent Price film. The imitation is so striking that future generations may think that Thatcher was Streep, the way we confuse Henry VIII and Charles Laughton. But we do not know the voice of King Henry to judge, or of Elizabeth I to compare it with Bette Davis’. To complain that the star overpowers the film is like objecting that a portrait by Sargent is better than its frame. Only some galactic event would deny Streep an Oscar for this. And if the “prosthetics designer” Mark Coulier or one of the other make-up artists does not get an award for the most convincing ageing techniques, each of us should get a face lift in protest.
Even the film industry is now reminded of a woman who once was mocked by radical feminists for being a woman, and who was disdained by snobs for rising above them, and who should haunt the great debate in which our own nation is engaged with words spoken in 1976: “Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money.”