The face peering from the ads and posters belongs to Meryl Streep, but the shadow that hovers over the land is definitely Margaret Thatcher’s.
The reaction to the film “The Iron Lady” has illuminated just how polarizing “Mrs. T.” (or “TBW” — “that bloody woman”) remains a generation after her ouster from 10 Downing St.
Love her or hate her — and there are plenty of people on both sides — it seems that hardly anyone here can watch the movie without their personal feelings entering into it.
Put Sam Fogg in the “hate” camp.
“It’s not possible for anyone who’s lived in the Thatcher era to see it objectively,” the 57-year-old art dealer said after a recent screening in London. “I didn’t like it — it was a hagiography.... It didn’t show a lot of her economic and social policies that turned the country into the selfish modern England we live in now.”
The film, which features Streep as Thatcher in a bravura performance as Britain’s only female prime minister, is stirring up extra passion because it offers the British a look at their past just as they appear to be repeating it.
After a long hiatus, Britain is once again being ruled by Thatcher’s Conservative Party, led by politicians who grew up under her 1979-90 premiership and who consider themselves heirs to her small-government, free-enterprise ideology. In a drive to slash public spending, officials have embarked on a series of stinging budget cuts as deep as any she ever ordered.
The unemployment rate, which soared during her first years as prime minister, is now at its highest since 1994. Like Thatcher, Prime Minister David Cameron is sparring with Britain’s unions and with Europe, the Tories’ perennial boogeyman. And for good measure, riots erupted across England in August, just as race riots shook Britain not long after Thatcher came to power.
The sense of political deja vu has only sharpened the fault lines that Thatcher opened and that still run through British society.
To her admirers, she will always be the forceful leader who, blue eyes flashing and handbag swinging, dragged Britain out of its socialist torpor and restored the country’s swagger. Like Republicans who eagerly wrap themselves in the mantle of her contemporary and political soul mate, Ronald Reagan, many Conservatives here still invoke her name and zealously defend her reputation and legacy as arguably Britain’s most dominant prime minister of the 20th century after Winston Churchill.
Cue the loud sniping at “The Iron Lady’s” portrayal of Thatcher as a frail octogenarian suffering from dementia, even though Thatcher is a frail octogenarian suffering from dementia.
One of her former Cabinet ministers denounced it as “ghoulish”; another declared that she was never the “half-hysterical, over-emotional” woman shown in the movie.
“It’s a fantastic piece of acting by Meryl Streep, but you can’t help wondering, why do we have to have this film right now?” Cameron complained to the BBC. “It is a film much more about aging and elements of dementia rather than about an amazing prime minister.”
Cameron, who was 12 when Thatcher assumed the office he holds now, has steered away from describing himself as an out-and-out Thatcherite, preferring to cast himself as a new-model Tory.
“The Conservatives have a more, if you like, human face in David Cameron,” said Jon Tonge, a political scientist at the University of Liverpool. “But I wouldn’t say the policies are that different from Margaret Thatcher’s.”
On the other side, many of Thatcher’s detractors still regard her as a monster who promoted heedless individualism and who once famously declared there was “no such thing as society,” a creed they believe the current government is gleefully pursuing.
For them, the Thatcher years are a wound that not only never healed but has gotten worse. They too dislike the film’s portrait of Thatcher as a doddering old woman who has imaginary conversations with her dead husband, not because they prefer to see her in her prime but because it humanizes a woman they still consider the devil.
“You only have to say her name, and people express the most vehement opinions,” the film’s director, Phyllida Lloyd, told the Guardian newspaper. “I’ve met friends who have said, ‘I’m going to be very torn about [your movie], because I made a pact with a friend at university that we would party on the day of her death.’”
Internet forums, left-wing journals and radio call-in shows seethe with still-undimmed rage from Thatcher loathers who seem unable, or unwilling, to separate Lloyd’s work of cinematic art from its subject.
“How can anyone make a star out of this evil woman?” one listener emailed a radio call-in show. “If you look at England today, you can trace most of our problems back to her.”
The antipathy appears not to have dented the film’s performance at the box office. It was the highest-grossing new release during its opening weekend in Britain; perhaps fittingly for a movie about a woman who didn’t shy from using the royal “we,” “The Iron Lady” took in three times as much as “The Queen” did when that film came out in 2006.
Moviegoers haven’t been so keen in northern England, where many residents revile Thatcher for busting the powerful miners union and closing down collieries.
Now 86 and infirm, Thatcher rarely makes public appearances; those hoping for a glimpse would have better luck gazing up at the bronze (not iron) statue of her in the House of Commons. Another likeness of her was decapitated in an art gallery in 2002.
“The level of emotion … is in some cases quite astonishing. I think both sides are caricaturing the woman, or building up myths that don’t actually exist,” said Tonge at the University of Liverpool. “People need to grow up and move on.”
Janet Stobart in The Times’ London bureau contributed to this report.