The Iron Lady treats its heroine’s dementia sensitively

Should a film be made about Margaret Thatcher while she is still alive?

Having read several film reviews both attacking and defending it, I thought I should go and see The Iron Lady – the much publicised newly released film of the life and times of Margaret Thatcher. I am glad I did so, if only to have an informed opinion of my own about it. On the one hand, there are the critics, such as Dr Max Pemberton, who denounced it in an angry article in the Telegraph, and on the other are those who think the treatment of Baroness Thatcher’s dementia was sensitively done; indeed, that in drawing attention to the plight of dementia sufferers the film will have given this disease much-needed publicity. I am of the latter party.

Should the film have been made while Lady Thatcher is still alive but incapable of protesting about it? That is a good question. I tend to agree with the Herald film critic, Quentin Falk, who thinks that if a film can be made about the Queen, with Helen Mirren brilliantly suggesting the odd, different world, quite apart from the rest of us, that the Queen inhabits, then Margaret Thatcher cannot be off-limits.

It all depends on the treatment. Here the depiction of dementia was sympathetic rather than cruel, probably accurate in its portrayal of the former prime minister’s confusion and memory loss, alongside moments of insight and understanding, and superbly acted by Meryl Streep. Of course there were inaccuracies; films can never capture the subtle currents of a life in the way a biography does and Thatcher is particularly easy to caricature. For instance, I don’t think it provided a balanced picture of Thatcher’s marriage to her husband. It suggests she walked over him for the sake of her personal ambition. Yet Denis Thatcher is on record as stating that when he met her he was smitten by her beauty, her brains – and the power of her political convictions. He determined to help her achieve her ambitions and supported her all the way.

Max Pemberton’s article focuses on the dementia, a disease which he describes as “cruel and tragic” and the film as dramatising “deeply tragic aspects of someone’s life”. Again, I disagree with this. Tragedy occurs when someone’s life is cut short too early or in their prime, when they have not fulfilled their potential. Margaret Thatcher fulfilled her extraordinary potential in spades. When dementia develops in old age – as will happen to many of us – it is hardly tragic, though it is certainly sad. None of us views the waning of our vital powers with equanimity, but that is the nature of life.

If you are a Christian who looks forward to the “life of the world to come”, then the depredations of old age such as the onset of dementia or physical disability can be accepted and borne with patience by others. I rather think the reason Pemberton finds the thought of dementia so appalling is because he lacks faith in life after death. It is only a short step from this attitude to that of another Baroness, Warnock, who thinks very elderly people should have easy access to euthanasia and shuffle off the stage of life altogether.

I also challenge Pemberton’s view that the film treats Thatcher as if she had already died. It doesn’t. What it does is to treat her in a mythic way as if she were already part of history – which she is. Whatever people think of her politics – and again I would query Pemberton’s contention that an “insidious selfishness… crept into the collective consciousness under her premiership” – she is the only prime minister of the 20th century who is spoken of in the same breath as Churchill.