I've been reading mixed reviews about the new Thatcher movie but this column by Virginia Postrel makes me want to skip it. She argues that the problem with the movie isn't that it depicts Thatcher's dementia, as some critics have said:
The problem, rather, is that grafted on to what could be an affecting story of greatness and decline is an invidious, and gratuitous, moral. Call it the Gospel According to Anna Quindlen, the writer and columnist who enshrined its maxims in a commencement speech she wrote in 1999 and eventually turned into the best-selling book “A Short Guide to a Happy Life.” “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in the office,” she instructed. “Don’t ever forget the words my father sent me on a postcard last year: ‘If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.’”
The film presents Thatcher as just such a rat -- a woman who too zealously pursued public achievement and spent way too much time at the office. Rather than universal loss, the loneliness of her old age represents a kind of karmic payback for her hubris in seeking to leave something more to history than her genes.
She shows how the movie's scriptwriter rewrote history to make her seem like she was a bad wife and mother who put career first. When she wins a seat for parliament, she's depicted with twins crying about her leaving them and peeling out with toys getting scraped off the dashboard. A driving lesson she gives her daughter is turned into how she puts Conservative Party politics ahead of her family. Denis is painted as someone who hates her level of work and who says she puts ambition over duty. Another scene has him asking how long it took her to realize he'd taken a trip to South Africa since she's so busy with parliamentary duties.
No wonder she wound up lonely and demented. The Iron Lady was just out for herself, a self-centered rat who missed the important things in life. At least that’s what a viewer who knew only the movie might suppose.
This crucial scene is worse than fabricated. It twists real events to make its moralistic point.
In the real world, Denis Thatcher, who was something of a workaholic himself, did in fact take a sabbatical in South Africa and Switzerland -- in 1964, a full decade before Margaret ran for party leader and for reasons that had little to do with his wife. On his return, he sold the family business to a larger company.
And Margaret Thatcher did indeed give her daughter driving lessons. After a professional instructor terrified Carol with a rush-hour trip through London’s busy Sloane Square, Margaret persuaded her daughter not to give up. “Thanks to her,” Carol Thatcher writes in her 2008 memoir “A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl,” “I eventually passed my test.” That, too, happened years before Thatcher ran for party leader. Her children, born in 1953, were adults during Thatcher’s years as head of the Conservative Party. Carol was in fact taking her law exams as the Tories were casting their party-leader votes -- a nice bit of parallel tension that the movie skips.
So what happens while the film is completely inventing her skill as a mother? Not a lot else. No time for policy discussions with world leaders, no time to discuss the coal miners strike or U.S. nuclear cruise missiles in Britain. No highlighting of Thatcher's assessment of Mikhail Gorbachev or a scene of her delivering her 1984 party address mere hours after her hotel was bombed. What else? Postrel notes it doesn't include her lines “the lady’s not for turning,” “there is no alternative,” or “there is no such thing as society.” It doesn't quite get around to explaining how she won her elections.
A two-hour film obviously can’t include everything. But this movie’s choices all tend toward a consistent end. They drain the content out of Thatcher’s public role, making it little more than a vehicle for her ambition, while embellishing her private life to portray her husband and daughter as justifiably resentful and her old age as haunted by regret. (Her son, Mark, stays out of this picture.) You would never know that Carol describes her parents’ marriage as “truly a meeting of minds” or that she depicts her mother with great affection as a “superwoman” who crafted elaborate cakes for her children’s birthdays, faithfully attended school parents’ nights and took her kids to enjoy the pageantry of the opening of Parliament.
Postrel then goes on to describe the new Hollywood Code that one's worth depends on personal relationships, not public actions. The only way to be a public woman in Hollywood film is to be a hereditary monarch who has no choice about her role. But if you're a grocer's daughter who chooses to serve her country as Prime Minister?
The screenwriter, who says it's a feminist film because it has a female writer, director and star, has publicly acknowledged Thatcher's extraordinary ability to combine homemaking, child-rearing and legal studies and that she did it without guilt. Postrel ends:
These supposedly feminist filmmakers could have portrayed Thatcher as an ambitious woman who had nothing to feel guilty about. Instead they chose to inject guilt where it did not belong. They obscured Thatcher’s public accomplishments in a fog of private angst. The portrait of dementia isn’t the problem. The way the film uses old age to punish a lifetime of accomplishment is.