CINEMA All in the performance
The Iron Lady DIRECTOR: PHYLLIDA LLOYD
Oneof the hidden moments of recent political history was Margaret Thatcher’s humiliation of her longest-serving Cabinet minister, Geoffrey Howe. She resented her Deputy Prime Minister’s suggestions that her policies required realignment, evidence to her that he could be unsound. Her criticism of him in front of his colleagues drove him in 1990 to resign, with a carefully worded speech in Parliament that so mined the ground beneath her that Michael Heseltine stood against her for the leadership and the whole edifice crumbled.
What was that humiliation like to witness? An excruciating scene in The Iron Lady, a film directed by Phyllida
Lloyd from a script
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher by Abi Morgan, shows Mrs Thatcher (Meryl Streep) in tyrannical command of her Cabinet. She begins to pick up on a minor inaccuracy by Howe – a nagging observation that grows to a rant. The normal regulators of professional discourse have disappeared. Is the leader perhaps even then displaying early symptoms of dementia?
It is the most memorable scene in a film that treads an uneasy course between conventional biopic and surreal evocation of the consciousness of the elderly Lady Thatcher, as she drifts between memory and delusion, often talking to her dead husband, Denis. The first thing to be got out of the way is that Streep has nailed the Thatcher voice, look and mannerisms and, more than that, imbued them with a mischievous vitality. There is more humour in this portrayal than in the original subject. With every justification, Streep is collecting yet more award nominations.
As daughter Carol Thatcher, Olivia Colman gives a touching sense of the cost of being the offspring of a political supernova. She manoeuvres carefully around her mother’s later confusion, both protective and still vulnerable to the barbs. Yet, despite Streep and Colman’s fine performances, it’s hard not to feel queasy about the sustained portrayal of a living character’s imagined decline. The dementia provides a dramatic device for flashback but mainly it seems designed as a form of Schadenfreude: a sense that we are all, even prime ministers, frail at the end – did anyone ever doubt that?
Unlike The Queen, which confined itself to a particular crisis (the death of Diana) to consider the relationship of monarchy to modern politics and people, The Iron Lady wants it all – the childhood, the battle to be accepted at Oxford, at work, in the Conservative Party. It may not be hagiography but its overall effect is of a narrow heroic narrative that does not really engage with the politics. We may get the sequence where Margaret Thatcher takes guidance from the image makers about the voice and the hair, but what about the ideas that proved so divisive – the monetarism or her particular brand of libertarianism allied to a strengthening of central power? Instead, there is a painting-by-numbers approach to political history – the grocer’s daughter’s thrift and determination, a touch of miners’ strike, some Falklands rhetoric, a little poll-tax difficulty, many bright blue suits and purposeful marching around with cowedlooking men following dutifully behind. The bit-part players (for this is a star vehicle, after all) come and go leaving you rifling through the card index of 1980s political figures (was that John Nott? Francis Pym? Which one is Michael Portillo?) to make out their significance. Nicholas Farrell as Airey Neave lingers more in the memory for both his early support and the manner of his murder by the IRA. But that event is weakened by actually placing Margaret Thatcher in the Westminster car park at the time his car was blown up, in the manner of television melodrama.
It could be that this telescoping of events is intended to mimic the inaccuracy of Thatcher’s own recall and self-mythology. No one expects drama to be an accurate record of the politics; in this case, its focus is clearly the woman. But an hour and three-quarters of The Iron Lady delivers little fresh insight into either the figure or the times. Francine Stock
TELEVISION Slow release
Public Enemies BBC1
There have been innumerable TV plays about crime, detection, the courts, even prison. Public Enemies (3-5 January) covered a less familiar area: the criminal’s return to society, having paid his debt. Tony Marchant’s drama brought together two characters. Eddie (Daniel Mays) was an ex-con, released on licence after 10 years in jail for the murder of his girlfriend. Paula (Anna Friel) was his probation officer, charged with managing his reintegration into society but also with ensuring that society is safe from him. The balance between these two roles, rehabilitation and control, has shifted towards the latter in recent years, and Marchant showed how difficult that has made life for those working in the probation service.
Dramatically, Marchant created a strong parallel between the two main characters’ stories. Paula, too, was experiencing her own rehabilitation. Before the opening credits of the first episode, we learnt that she had been supervising another murderer who had gone on to kill again while on licence. As a result she had been suspended, and was only now returning to work, conscious that her actions from now on would be scrutinised by her superiors and a hostile media.
The play presented a realistic picture of the frustrations faced by the ex-convict, living in a hostel with a 9 p.m. curfew, required to account for how he spent his time, subject to an exclusion order restricting his movements around his home town. Out of jail, but not at liberty, he chafed against the constraints placed upon him. Nonetheless, things went better for Eddie than they might have in real life. He quickly found a job, and a girlfriend. He also wheedled his way into the confidence of Paula, who was soon covering up for him when he broke the rules.
At which point, problems of plausibility started to arise. It’s hard to believe that a hardpressed probation officer would have so much time to spend with one client, or would form an attachment to one so unappealing: a convicted murderer and habitual liar with a violent temper and a permanent look of bewilderment mingled with belligerence. As the relationship moved beyond the merely professional, Marchant gave it an element of hope by having Eddie declare his innocence. This caused problems for the characters: an excon in denial is considered more risky than one who has accepted responsibility for his past, and so the intensity of the restrictions upon him had to increase. But it also pushed the story into a more conventional direction: an ill-matched couple coming together in a fight against a miscarriage of justice.
There was an interesting scene near the end: still not sure about Eddie’s guilt or innocence, Paula went to prison to see the murderer who had fooled her and killed again while under her supervision. She asked him how he had done it, and he told her he had done it by “doing what was expected of me”. In that light, Eddie’s resistance to the conditions of his licence became evidence of his honesty: it confirmed her belief that she could trust him.
And she was right. The drama ended with the unmasking of the real murderer, whose identity won’t have surprised anyone. Public Enemies was a creditable attempt to do something different in a prime-time popular drama slot, and contained a lot of insight about the probation system. But it depended utterly on the central relationship between Paula and Eddie, and sadly that was never convincing enough to be moving. John Morrish
24 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012