Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep, Dementia and Art

Making the Thatcherite rounds today is this item in the Telegraph. It seems an anonymous source claims that Thatcher’s family is “appalled” by the screenplay for The Iron Lady:

Although the prospect of Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher may have pleased some admirers of the Conservative former prime minister, her children have been horrified to discover more about the film.

Mandrake hears that the screenplay of The Iron Lady depicts Baroness Thatcher as an elderly dementia-sufferer looking back on her career with sadness. She is shown talking to herself and unaware that her husband, Sir Denis Thatcher, has died.

“Sir Mark and Carol are appalled at what they have learnt about the film,” says a friend of the family. “They think it sounds like some Left-wing fantasy. They feel strongly about it, but will not speak publicly for fear of giving it more publicity.”

There may be something else about the screenplay that is offensive to the family, but if so, it’s not reported here. If this is all there is to it, I’m puzzled. Baroness Thatcher is suffering from dementia. It’s not a secret, nor, surely, should it be a source of shame. It’s a terrible disease, not a character flaw. Carol Thatcher herself has written about the agony of explaining to her mother repeatedly that her husband is dead. This is legitimately part of the biography of Margaret Thatcher, not a Left-wing fantasy.

Cameron McCracken, the managing director of the film-maker Pathé, confirms: “It is true that the film is set in the recent past and that Baroness Thatcher does look back on both the triumphs and the lows of her extraordinary career.

“It is a film about power and the price that is paid for power. In that sense, it is the story of every person who has ever had to balance their private life with their public career.”

I don’t see how a film about Thatcher could fail to treat these themes. Using the vehicle of retrospection is a common artistic device and probably a shrewd one. It is obviously poignant that none of Thatcher’s achievements and none of her worldly power could protect her from her fate. Some of the greatest works of literature are meditations on the limits of political power, are they not?

Of course it’s still possible that the screenplay is Left-wing garbage. But I certainly wouldn’t conclude so from this.

  1. Scott R

    Here’s a fear: There is a narrative out there now that the 2008 financial crisis was the moment when the “fraud” of Reagan-Thatcher-ism was exposed, came crashing down. Might The Iron Lady’s present-day retrospection be the device of choice merely to weave in that canard? Possible. Hope not.

  2. Jonathan Matthew Gilbert

    This is very interesting…I’m doing everything I can to get a copy of the script but haven’t had any luck–which makes me suspicious of the fact that the Thatcher family has. No good screenwriter or director of a bio-pic would allow the subject or the family to see the material, especially prior to filming, unless it was going to be shamelessly praiseworthy. Their response would seem to indicate there is more to it, especially–as you noted–since they’ve never been shy about admitting the current situation for what it is. Carol has never seemed to care much about political criticisms so I doubt it’s that, and she’s also been very forthright about the fact that despite all of her mother’s accomplishments, Baroness Thatcher wasn’t exactly skilled at being a mother. Mark is always ready to get his name in the press again, which may be part of this, but it makes me worry we’re looking at something more like “W.” than “Nixon” or “The Queen.” I increasingly feel that Meryl Streep is wrong, but that’s just me.

  3. Emily Esfahani Smith
    C

    Claire – what are your thoughts on Meryl Streep playing Thatcher? And what’s your favorite Margaret Thatcher story?

  4. Duane Oyen
    Scott Reusser: Here’s a fear: There is a narrative out there now that the 2008 financial crisis was the moment when the “fraud” of Reagan-Thatcher-ism was exposed, came crashing down. Might The Iron Lady’s present-day retrospection be the device of choice merely to weave in that canard? Possible. Hope not. · Jul 19 at 6:18am

    They already did that- go back and look at the comments when Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; the favored classy statement from the Left was that he had been afflicted while in office designing his program. They can say what they want- the countries worked when those two were operating, they did less well after the two of them left the scene.

  5. Claire Berlinski
    C

    Emma Thompson’s an interesting idea. But not perfect, either. Thatcher herself had far more star power, more command, more charisma. Honestly, I’m not sure who the right choice would be. You need a real, old-fashioned movie star, someone who dominates the screen. There needs to be enough physical resemblance that the lack thereof isn’t distracting. She’ll need to be able to play Thatcher from her early parliamentary years to her decline, so she can neither be too old nor too young … it’s a tough casting problem.

    Meryl Streep was great as Anna Wintour. That’s an argument in her favor.

  6. StickerShock

    Margaret Thatcher looking back on her career with sadness —- but seen through the prism of a liberal’s view of what warrants this sadness —- is where the problem lies for me. I’m guessing the remarkable accomplishments will be downplayed and the dementia played up. I have had family members suffer from dementia. Had anyone chosen to portray them on stage or screen, I’d want the productive, active portions of their lives featured. Certainly not the dementia. Of course it is not shameful, but it is very, very sad. The choice to highlight this portion of Mrs. Thatcher’s life story, when there are so many world shaking triummphs to celebrate, could only be tied to nefarious motives.

  7. Jonathan Matthew Gilbert

    I still think there’s more to it *if* they’re actually that upset, but what I really can’t wrap my head around the idea of Margaret Thatcher looking back with regret. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t have regrets. A sense of bitter satisfaction? Sure. Vindictiveness? Absolutely. But no regrets. And since the plot of the movie has also been described as being the two weeks leading up to the Falkland Islands War…why would she look back with sadness and regret? It was one of the moments when she was found to be most true.

  8. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Emily Esfahani Smith: Claire – what are your thoughts on Meryl Streep playing Thatcher? And what’s your favorite Margaret Thatcher story? · Jul 19 at 10:10am

    I don’t think she’s a terrible choice–she’s a good, versatile actress–but I don’t think she’s a brilliant choice, either. I suspect ultimately she can only really be played by someone to whom every subtlety of the British class structure is instinctively apparent. Jonathan, who would be your dream choice?

    If you go by how often I repeat it, you’d have to conclude that my favorite story is one told to me by Charles Powell:

    In the mid-1980s, the prime minister was urged by her foreign office, against her better judgment, to receive a notorious Congolese communist at 10 Downing Street No sooner had the hapless Marxist seated himself in her drawing room than she fixed him with an acid glare and said, “I hate Communists.” Mortified, the translator stammered, then rendered Thatcher’s comments thus: “Prime Minister Thatcher says that she has never been wholly supportive of the ideas of Karl Marx.” One trusts that the visitor nonetheless guessed from her expression where he stood.

  9. Jonathan Matthew Gilbert

    On screen? (I already have my dream choice for stage, the glorious Carolann Page) I actually thought Lindsay Duncan knocked it out of the ballpark already in “Margaret,” but a few days ago a friend of mine suggested Emma Thompson and at first I totally wrote it off but…it kept coming back. She would bring the same caliber of ability as Meryl Streep, and yet would understand every nuance of the British class system, and I think with her it would come off as something more than just an exercise. I respect Meryl quite a lot, but this just doesn’t feel right. Of course, neither does the same director who brought us the film adaptation of “Mamma Mia,” though.

  10. Jonathan Matthew Gilbert

    Fiona Shaw. But not enough of a “name,” of course. Of the “names,” Meryl probably is about as good as it could get.