There is little doubt that the Margaret Thatcher bio-pic The Iron Lady, which has just been released, is going to court controversy and the excellent Daily Mash has already reported on a number of glaring errors in Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the ex-Prime Minister. But the debate that is already framing the release of the film is remarkably similar to those that surrounded previous fictional accounts of Thatcher’s life.
As someone interested in the connections between real and fictional politics, I know that an often-expressed concern is that by its very nature the bio-pic humanises its subject. Consequently such films have the effect of making the audience sympathise or feel empathy for the protagonist which it is further claimed is problematic (if not downright bogus). This criticism has already featured in early reviews of The Iron Lady, but was notable too on the broadcast in 2008 of both The Long Walk to Finchley and Margaret (one might even add Ian Curteis’ The Falklands Play which was finally broadcast the year before). There was even concern that in the case of Margaret the BBC had gone out of its way to alter the script in order to make the former Prime Minister more appealing. The implication of the charge was that in some sense viewers were not being presented with a truthful portrait of Thatcher in her pomp.
However lurking behind any apprehensions about the depiction of a sympathetic Thatcher is a more serious charge that the focus on the personal obscures the actual public aspects of the central character’s life. Effectively the actual politics of the period (and its consequences) are almost literally driven out of the picture. As a result viewers are offered a highly partial representation of events and are in danger of forgetting (or never knowing) what Margaret Thatcher and her governments did.
There is merit to this point of view. In these dramas outside events and public reaction to Thatcher’s policies, if mentioned at all, tend to be only fleetingly glimpsed in intercuts of newsreel of rioters or striking miners. In this respect it appears that The Iron Lady will be no different. Moreover, there are legitimate questions to be asked of the genre of ‘faction’; debates over the ethics and implications of it as a form of popular historical understanding. How ‘true’ is the story we are being told, what has been omitted, altered, composited – are we, as an audience being manipulated or misled? But we should also admit that a text does not exist in a vacuum.
The criticism that a film like The Iron Lady distracts audiences from Thatcher’s record firstly ignores the myriad of other fictional works that also exist but which do draw attention to the effects of her governments’ policies, from The Boys in the Black Stuff (1982) and Oi! For England (1982) through to Brassed Off (1996) and This Is England (2006).
But more importantly there is the extent to which any text is itself hyper-textual – that is, it forms a part of an interconnecting web of other texts that refer to it and to whom it refers to in turn. Our ‘knowledge’ of Thatcher is not simply confined to the portrayal in The Iron Lady but is informed by a maelstrom of opinion and conjecture linked to it. Thus, when Suzanne Moore makes the criticism that we ‘don’t see the victims of her [Thatcher’s] policies’ in the The Iron Lady we are at that very same moment presented with them as Moore (and similar articles that surrounded previous Thatcher bio-pics) goes on to fill the perceived lacuna. In fact there is the likelihood that we will be overtly reminded far more of the politics of Thatcherism by the making of The Iron Lady than if it had never been produced.
Finally as to the claim that politics is being pushed out of view by the focus on the personal in bio-pics, this is perhaps to ask too much of this particular genre and its conventions. But it is also to ignore what the genre can do. If we confine politics, and more specifically political activity, to the realm of policy papers or in depth discussions of economic strategy, bio-pics will no doubt disappoint. Yet politics is also carried out in terms of relationships, rhetoric, performance – boring meetings even – and it is political fiction that is often the only medium that reveals these aspects to us.
I would suggest that if some of us are unnerved to find ourselves sympathising with Margaret Thatcher as we watch The Iron Lady then it is doing its work and asking us to see or feel something we didn’t necessarily before. Our reaction could be to recoil and say, as Moore and others have ‘wait a minute it wasn’t like that’ or we might begin to assess how we think of a politician or how and why they conducted themselves as they did.
Either way we are asked to refresh our position: and that can only be a good thing.