While you may not have heard of Abi Morgan, you certainly heard of her latest film: “The Iron Lady”. The biopic of Margaret Thatcher caught everyone’s attention by landing Meryl Streep her first Oscar in a long, long time (and one she deserved, as Streep never gives less than 110%). I had a brief chat with Abi about the film and Thatcher’s life, letting her respond to criticisms I had read about the script.
If you have not yet seen the film, I do encourage you to do so. It is far from flawless, but is a good overview for those who may not be acquainted with Thatcher.
GS: Let’s just jump right into this. Some people took issue with your focusing on Margaret Thatcher now, who is no longer mentally competent, rather than while she was in her prime…
AM: I think when we were looking at doing a film about Margaret Thatcher, and I was approached about it, they actually had a different focus in mind — the period of the Falklands War. But it became apparent that they were also interested in doing a bigger, broader picture of her. We kept coming back to the question, where is she now? She hasn’t done what Bill Clinton has done, becoming a humanitarian. And she hasn’t done what Tony Blair has, traveling the world and going to conferences. As a prime minister who is still alive, she is still very much reviled or revered by some. It felt like we were circumnavigating the issue of where she was now, and it was after reading the biography by daughter Carol Thatcher that we started to incorporate that aspect in.
Carol’s book talks about taking care of her mother, who has dementia, and she realized her mother lives in another world. We received the criticism that we showed someone with dementia, but for millions of people dementia is a fact of life. And so, I think the film was as much about the universality of losing your mind to dementia as it was about specifically Margaret Thatcher. I’ve also heard the criticism that we should hve waited until she was dead, which I understand, but there is nothing shameful about dementia and we were trying to portray it honestly.
GS: So, you sort of turn the tables there — those who oppose the portrayal of dementia are keeping it something taboo.
AM: The criticism is perfectly understandable, but we have to write about the world we live in. I think it’s absolutely fair that people have the criticism, but there’s nothing shameful about dementia. And yet, people have a right to feel whatever they want to feel about the film.
GS: The other criticism I hear, and I’m not sure how fair this is, is that you have a polarizing figure but did not present her as either bad or good, just as she was.
AM: I think of Margaret Thatcher as someone who was both reviled and revered, so she splits an audience and she split the public. It was not my intention to do a hatchet job, just as it was not my intention to water down her politics. If I’m honest, I feel the film is about power and not about the side I take. I was brought up in a Labour household that didn’t agree with Thatcher’s politics, and that was always in my background while writing the script. But having said that, I felt it was more interesting to approach her asking, “What is it like to be like King Lear? To have absolute power and absolute control, and then come to a point where you’ve lost it.” So I was more intrigued by that and writing about her challenges and internal world. I think it’s more universal than just Margaret Thatcher. A film is a journey. I may have written the script, but you bring on a director and an actress and the film begins to take shape. It was never about coming down on one side or another — the audience can make that decision for themselves. I was more concerned with exposing the good and the bad of her era and her reign.
GS: Was the comparison of Thatcher and King Lear in the back of your mind while writing the script?
AM: Very much so. When we talked about Denis Thatcher and their relationship, we saw a Shakespearean element to it. It’s an element that I think director Phyllida Lloyd certainly took on board and embraced.
GS: Although it sounds like you disagree with Thatcher’s policies, or at least grew up in a household that did, do you think she is an icon for women?
AM: I don’t think I do, no. When you work on her life, you can’t fail to be impressed by the gravitas of her journey. She went from a working class household in the 1940s, through decades of prejudice, and she went on to become prime minister. One can’t fail to recognize her strength and power, the sheer energy of her quest. Someone can say it’s incredible she got that far as a woman, but when you read the memoirs of people from her cabinet, they actually felt her biggest stumbling block was her class. I live in a country [England] that is still riddled with the class system, and she took on a government and country that is in love with Oxford and Cambridge and the old order. She was a schoolgirl from Grantham. [Gavin notes: Thatcher graduated in 1947 with Second Class Honours in the four-year Chemistry Bachelor of Science degree; in her final year she specialized in X-ray crystallography.]
If Margaret Thatcher is useful for the feminist movement, that’s great. But I think ultimately she was more successful because her behavior was archetypically male in many ways. We haven’t had another female prime minister, so I can see people embracing her as a feminist icon, but I don’t feel that at all. She’s impressive, but for me personally there are probably other women I would look to as icons.
GS: I think you have sort of alluded to the irony of Margaret Thatcher — that her background is firmly in the working class, but as she went up the ranks of the Conservative Party, her policies were not supportive of the working class.
AM: That is the paradox and the contradiction of Margaret Thatcher. I think she was impressed by the idea that America was a meritocracy. I think she didn’t want the working class to be patronized. In a way, I think the journey that she made probably made her less socialist in her views, since she was able to overcome the hardships without government intervention. She was driven by convictions, her belief in herself. And I think she wanted people to make their own way in the world, buy their own houses, and not rely on the state. She had a strong view about that. But it’s not what we would expect from someone of her background, which is her paradox.
GS: Just as this discussion is getting good, I’m going to switch gears on you. Your next film, “The Invisible Woman”, tells us things about Charles Dickens that we probably didn’t know. Can you give us a preview?
AM: “The Invisible Woman” is based on a social history by Claire Tomalin , and it’s based on the secret love affair that Dickens had with Nelly Ternan, an actress considerably younger than him. They had a relationship for about thirty years and the film is about that relationship. It focuses on Nelly Ternan looking back on her life with Charles Dickens.
GS: I am definitely looking forward to that one. And I think we’ll wrap this up…
AM: Lovely! Thanks very much.