I always approach any film about dementia with a feeling of dread and apprehension, as my own mother doesn’t know who I am, though shows some fear and confusion when I am around, because she feels as though she should know who I am. As my brother says, she is just a generic little old lady, not our mother.
So it was with the latest film about dementia the relationship it plays with marital love, The Iron Lady. It shows with tenderness and sensitivity the interplay between the past and a life spent without someone who has been there and understands what you have done and your set of beliefs. It seems that all she is surrounded by are flatterers and well meaning carers. It is in this phase that we hear the great line about contemporary people wanting to “be someone” rather than “do something”. As such, it uses its famous sufferer as a way to show society exactly how the condition can affect even the most steely and determined mind. If it was a film just about dementia, it wouldn’t attract that much negative attention.
The difference is that this film is about one of the most divisive figures of modern political history and as such, it carried a number of expectations. One set of expectations were carried into it by political speechwriter and operative, Bob Ellis, in his review. He was hoping for a political film that explored in depth all of the battles of Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister. Lots of dialogue in rooms filled with men talking about Thatcher, or ones with the same men with just Thatcher. He also wanted people cast who better resembled people he knew personally. The casting of Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine is interpreted almost as an affront – even if the resemblance is pretty accurate. The idea of any politician being played by a Spartacus style he-man is faintly absurd. Except maybe Tony Abbott. Ellis seemed to hanker as well for more riots and anger – like many would have hoped for in a film about Thatcher.
Notoriously, Ellis was also hankering for a male writer of the film. He makes the statement at the end of the review “I know of no good political drama by a woman, and this, though a worthy experiment, ought not, I think, be tried again” based on his reading of this film as a wrong headed attempt. As a screenwriter for films himself, Ellis would have loved, no doubt, to have a crack himself at a film with a decent budget and a lead cast such as the one in the film. It would have been a film swimming with political operatives, garrulous speechwriters, numbers men as well crackling, symbolism-dripping cameos from people cast as Reagan, Gorbachev, Michael Foote, Neil Kinnock and the like. With Thatcher playing her role like the other men in those various rooms. That is what he refers to when he says that men should write political drama. This is an absurd contention on a number of levels. Female writers could write the same kind of back room political operative-heavy drama he refers to – episodes of The West Wing had female writers. What Ellis is seeming to tell us is that political films should have little in the way of personal elements – and that when women write about politics, they will always include the personal and the irrelevant. Unlike men, who don’t like writing about the personal dimension. There is, in this thesis, a fixed dichotomy of gender perspectives that isn’t there in the world of writing.
What Ellis is also missing through his review is the way The Iron Lady works as a film for wide release. The dementia works as a framing device, showing how the main protagonist has a human side, emotional ties, a complex range of character traits. Coupled with this is the use of seeing events from the 1st person perspective – a device that helps to bring an intimacy to the portrait of a character, the trade off being omitting the perspectives of others. Many film audiences prefer this style, rather than the dry third person narrative style we usually see for “political” films. The film also uses the well worn path of a lone woman making her way in the world, against men who want to take her down. There is also the story of a love that never dies, with a man with a constant twinkle in his eye and a common admiration for The King and I. In other words, this film calls upon well known, popular film language and structures in order to communicate its messages to a wide film going audience and succeeds on that level. It’s not the narrow casting political film that Ellis would have written, films like the box office flop Frost / Nixon, Good Night and Good Luck – another great political film that made a modest impact on the box office, the telemovie Margaret or the weekly television dramas composed for university educated audiences like The West Wing.
The film, however, is not without its flaws – especially in the way it tends to paint some of the political issues with too general a brush. In showing Thatcher as “the woman making her way in the world, against men”, I think her time as Prime Minister could have been handled with greater detail – still within the intimate structures established. It does also make any males who oppose her seem to be all misogynists who oppose her just because she’s a woman, a point made in this review and the first person narrative approach tends to render the political events in a rather shallow way, a point made in these reviews. It does tend to make her Conservative Government look like a group of powerless worry warts, with no say over policy – instead seeming only to care about the little people being crushed by Thatcher’s steely resolve, rather than just their votes. I can’t imagine that being the case. It also tends to make her political philosophy sound simplistic – that she was a grocer’s daughter and she just applied that to being Prime Minister. The music telegraphing the Important Moments also grated.
To say, however, that The Iron Lady is an unsuccessful film about politics also discounts an important idea about politics – that it is also about the personal. That personal determination and attitudes are important to the way politics is shaped and practiced. That the back rooms are not the only places were politics are formed. For political insiders like Ellis, he seems to see politics from the back rooms and wants to see it stay there in films. So do, it seems, reviewers who think that political films need to be dry and told for the most part in the detached third person. For society, there are many who want to see politicians as people, with all their complexities, flaws and all. Otherwise, politics becomes just some kind of cynical exercise completely out of touch with humanity. Good political writing covers both the personal and public sphere. The Iron Lady isn’t perfect at either, and a gritty, no holds barred film about Thatcher is still to be made. However, it’s a good film that might make a bit of money at the box office. People should see it.