January 7, 2012

Imprisoned memories prowl through the dark …


The spectral Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent) surprises the still-living but senile Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) from behind the sofa: “Gotcha!” Did I imagine that moment? Is it purely coincidental that the most notorious one-word newspaper headline in recent history should now be thrown back at the monster it indirectly celebrated or is it actually a form of criticism? Hard to say: as the example shows, Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady is a film that forces you to project your own thoughts about Thatcher and Thatcherism onto that which appears on screen, or dig around for meaning, one reason why her enemies think it’s too soft and her supporters – are there any? – think it’s too harsh. On balance, it’s a Thatcher film minus Thatcherism and the only reason her remaining supporters have disapproved is because of the deteriorating Thatcher it gives us. But forget who that is and what she did, and you have an old-age-as-misery story we seldom get to see in the movies, almost play-like, set in the gloomy, afterlife-like rooms of the London apartment where she lives under virtual house arrest: the fading and unstable former leader unrecognised by the public, the cheerful ghost of her husband, the patronising help, the annoying daughter. Streep as Thatcher-in-old-age is better, and stranger, than any computer-generated effect, and her memories are slippery and unreliable: the film even allows you to think of Thatcherism itself as a dream or delusion that never happened, or enjoy the world-historical figure’s nightmare about what history may ultimately say about her (you think of other figures in twilight: Murdoch, Pinochet), or imagine a guilty conscience, which the film never openly suggests – other than in the “gotcha!” moment. It is also easy – and correct – to say that the script is not critical enough: the 1980s flash past, abbreviated and sometimes out of sequence (here, the miners’ strike comes before the Falklands War – or is that her unreliable memory?), and while there is acknowledgement of disagreement and protest, that protest seems indistinguishable from the sexism of the old-school Tories, and is therefore rendered meaningless. But there are thousands of ways to talk about who she was and what she did. Here is one that arrived in the post just yesterday …

"26 October. In bed with a cold I’m rung by a television company putting together an obituary of Mrs Thatcher. I’ve not much to offer though mention the trip I made c1990 along the M62 from Hull to Liverpool, a trail of devastation, decay and manufacturing slump that stretched from coast to coast, much of it the doing of the Iron Lady. It struck me then that no one had done so much systematic damage to the North since William the Conqueror …" from Alan Bennett’s Diary, London Review of Books, January 5 2012.

“Imprisoned memories prowl through the dark” – the first line of the narration on Derek Jarman’s The Last of England (1987).