Thatcher biopic may alienate film-goers on both left and right

Two decades after Margaret Thatcher was ousted by her own Conservative Party, Blighty’s first woman prime minister remains an instantly recognizable global icon who still sparks sharply polarized passions, particularly in the U.K.

That level of brand awareness should be a gift to the makers of “The Iron Lady.” But given the strength of feeling she evokes, the question is whether anyone, fan or foe, can bear to watch a movie about her.

Damien Jones, producer of the $20 million film, knows from his own family just what a divisive figure Thatcher was.

“One of my grandmothers thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. The other used to turn off the television whenever she came on,” he recalls.

The media frenzy over the first glimpses of “The Iron Lady” confirms that Britain is as fiercely conflicted as ever between those who regard Thatcher as the greatest leader since Churchill, and those who think she did more damage to the country than anyone since Hitler.

When Jones returned to England after living in America, he couldn’t understand why no one had made a film about such a towering personality. “Who else would you choose as one of the iconic figures of the 20th century?” he asks. “After Princess Diana and the Queen, there’s Mrs. Thatcher.”

He wasn’t motivated by a specific interest in her politics so much as by a belief that she fitted the template of a marketable British star.

“When I saw ‘The Queen’ and how everyone was lauding it, I thought maybe it’s time to try and bring this to fruition,” he says. Pathe, which backed “The Queen,” agreed, especially once the dream casting of Meryl Streep fell into place.

Their belief in the Thatcher/Streep combo was borne out by strong pre-sales. To maximize value but also to protect the filmmakers from U.S. influence, Pathe held off American suitors until after shooting, when the Weinstein Co., sniffing Oscars, came aboard for the asking price.

But the U.K. remains the key territory to power the global rollout. The extreme polarization of its audience also makes it the most challenging.

Thatcher’s die-hard supporters have already declared their lack of interest in seeing what a bunch of lefty filmmakers have to say about their heroine. Lord Tebbit, her closest political ally, said she was never the “half-hysterical, over-emotional, over-acting woman” glimpsed in the trailer. Her PR man Tim Bell haughtily described the film as a “non-event.”

On the other hand, it’s equally difficult to imagine many Labour or Liberal voters rushing out to spend an evening with an even partly sympathetic or glamorized portrait of a woman they still regard with revulsion.

It’s hard for people outside the U.K. or even inside the insulated metropolitan bubble of London to grasp the undying tribal hatred that persists for Thatcher in parts of the country worst hit by her policies, notably Scotland and northern industrial cities such as Liverpool and Sheffield.

Extreme websites such as http://www.isthatcherdeadyet.co.uk, with 62,000 likes on Facebook, reflect this depth of feeling. For left-leaning film fans, it’s a conflict between their antipathy to the subject and their desire to witness what is being hailed as a must-see performance. The strident mannerisms that Streep mimics so brilliantly are exactly what Thatcher’s foes find so teeth-grindingly unbearable about her.

“It is a jaw-dropping performance,” says one person working on the movie. “If you are willing to spend an hour and 40 minutes in the company of Mrs. Thatcher, it’s a performance that towers over everything else this year. But it’s not vicious enough for those who remember her with utter and complete loathing. The problem is, we right-thinking people don’t want to like her, and we don’t want to see Meryl Streep, whom we like, playing her. I don’t want to see an even-handed portait of a toothless, elderly Robert Mugabe either. It’s a big issue for a lot of people.”

The battle for Pathe is to convince Brits that “The Iron Lady” is a cinematic event that transcends the tribal prejudices of left and right.

“It might be that the people who love her don’t want to see it and people who hate her don’t want to see it, but we hope it will be the opposite, that it becomes such a talking point that everyone feels they have to come and see it, irrespective of their political baggage,” says Pathe U.K. managing director Cameron McCracken. “Our challenge is to let people know that it’s not a political film… absolutely not a forensic examination of Thatcherism. It’s a portrait of a woman coming to terms with her loss of power and identity, which is a universal story.”

McCracken compares the marketing campaign to the one Pathe deployed successfully for “Slumdog Millionaire.” “That poster may not have been the greatest triumph of estheticism, but in terms of saying to a broad audience, you will enjoy this, it was very effective. We want to show that ‘The Iron Lady’ is a big drama and it’s going to look attractive.”

“I think it’s a given that people will want to see one of our best writers, Abi Morgan, give her imagining of how Margaret Thatcher will look back on her life, directed by another very visionary woman, Phyllida Lloyd,” argues Sue Bruce-Smith, Film4’s director of commercial development. “Of course, people will bring a huge amount of their own agenda, and they will take issue with aspects of it, but sparking debate and making people talk is what it’s all about, certainly for Film4. And there’s a whole generation for whom Thatcher is a shadowy figure.”

“Between the extremes of left and right, there’s a huge middle ground,” Jones argues. But the assertion that there’s neutral territory when it comes to Thatcher is highly debatable. Her own brand of conviction politics was based on the polarizing assertion that if you weren’t with her, you were against her.

Here lies the fundamental risk taken by the “Iron Lady” filmmakers. Thatcher is the last politican who can be easily de-politicized. The act of doing so is to deny how she defined herself.

“It’s a really brave film because of that,” acknowledges Bruce-Smith. “What Abi does is to talk about that gap between the personal and the public, between immense power and control, and no power and control.”

For her supporters, Thatcher’s greatest quality was that she didn’t show weakness, and gave an ailing country the harsh medicine it needed without flinching. For her detractors, it was this very lack of compassion towards those who paid the price for her economic policies, and her evident relish for the battle against those such as the miners whom she regarded as “the enemy within,” which accounts for their loathing.

Neither side is likely to welcome the pic’s invitation to empathazie with Thatcher as an old lady struggling with the loss of her husband and her mind.

As Jones himself acknowledges, “The ones who would get upset on the left and right would get upset for the same reason, which is that we show her intimate side. For the left, they won’t like it because we make her human, and the right won’t like it because we’ve gone behind the iron mask.”Morgan came up with the conceit of constructing the film as a dialogue between Thatcher, alone and semi-senile in her retirement, and her dead husband Denis — “the only person who did know her,” according to Jones.

“The beauty of Abi’s script was the personal moments, how you can relate that to one’s own life and relatives,” he says. “We were trying to make it personal, not political. ”

“I thought they were going to go after her with a filleting knife,” says one person involved with marketing the film. “Abi Morgan and Phyllida Lloyd are not fans of hers, and Meryl is as liberal as the day is long. But those right-on women are too nice, they’ve fallen in love with their monster.”

Jones admits that the more research they did, the more admiration and respect they all felt for her. “I was never a Conservative in my youth, and I am not one now, but when I realized what she achieved in terms of class and sex, the stigma and prejudice she overcame, it was eye-opening to me. .”

Complexities abound. Some key figures behind the film suggest that the negative commentary is fuelled by persistent sexism — against Thatcher, and also the female filmmaking team. Yet Thatcher’s most impassioned critics include feminist writers who, far from celebrating her historic breakthrough, regarded her as a traitor to their cause.

One of the earliest PR maneuvers by the filmmakers was to court Blighty’s most influential female commentators, inviting a handful to a homecooked meal at Lloyd’s house with Streep, who baked them an apple pie using a Julia Childs recipe.

“Because it’s a female director, a female writer, it’s Meryl and it’s the story of a major female figure, it was a desire to engage with female journalists as the very first audience, to explore the issues with them before they had even had the benefit of seeing our marketing campaign,” says McCracken. “Through conversation and discussion, that’s how we will get our message across.”

Evening Standard columnist Liz Hoggard wrote, “Just like Helen Mirren in The Queen, (Streep) makes Maggie a radiant figure. I found myself rooting for the brainy grocer’s daughter as she battled her way through the snooty Tory ranks.” But she called parts of the film “cartoonish and unsettling,” saying that “you could easily lose patience with the frantic plotting.”

Stuart Boreman, chief booker at the Vue multiplex chain, admits to loathing Thatcher ever since his student days in Sheffield when the city was at the heart of the miners’ strike. He went into the exhibitors’ screening expecting to hate “The Iron Lady” on political grounds, but came out disappointed for other reasons.

“At least 40% of the screen time is a senile Mrs. Thatcher talking to her dead husband. I expected to see a lot more history and events. I was annoyed as a cinema exhibitor that it was so leftfield.”

Nonetheless, he predicts a solid $12 million return at the U.K. box office, albeit heavily skewed towards the Tory heartlands of southern England.

“I expect to see a massive geographical imbalance,” he says. “We saw that with ‘The Queen,’ but this will be even more polarized. ”

The pic’s overseas prospects may be more straightforward. “All of the international buyers reacted very emotionally to the completed film,” notes McCracken. “Without any of the anti-Thatcher baggage that so many Brits carry around with them, they simply react to what’s on screen. It’s a profoundly moving film about loss, and everyone can relate to it. If critics are so keen to see a film examining Thatcherism, I’m sure some filmmaker someday with oblige them. But that’s not our film.”

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