Judge Clark Douglas loves the PM. He's always been a night owl.
The fascinating life of one of the most significant figures in British political history.
In anticipation of the Meryl Streep-starring Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, the good folks at BBC Video have released The Rise and Fall of Margaret Thatcher, a collection of three made-for-television films documenting (often in highly speculative fashion) numerous major events in the life of the former Prime Minister. Though all three films feature different leading ladies and are technically unrelated productions, they do present some consistent themes that make the trio of flicks feel like they were designed as a single viewing experience.
The collection opens with the surprisingly bright, bubbly Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, which spotlights young Margaret (Andrea Riseborough, Never Let Me Go) as she enters politics, meets her future husband Denis (Rory Kinnear, Quantum of Solace), makes enemies with the grouchy Ted Heath (Samuel West, Van Helsing) and begins her rise to power. Thatcher is at her most appealing in this effort, as her valiant battles against sexism and condescension are inspiring. Her intelligence and drive are consistently overlooked and underestimated; it's quite satisfying to see her crafting ways to topple her small-minded opposition. Even so, the film quietly lays the groundwork for Margaret's political demise decades later by offering early glimpses of her unwillingness to compromise on even the smallest items. She's commanding and ferocious at times, but the film delivers a surprisingly conventional "adorable and plucky" portrait of Thatcher which seems better suited to a romantic comedy (which this is, in part) than a serious political drama.
Things turn much grimmer (and much drier, admittedly) in the controversial production of Ian Curteis' The Falkland Play. The play (which, as you might expect, takes a behind-the-scenes look at the events that let to the Falklands War) was originally commissioned by the BBC in 1983, but was shelved after the BBC determined that it was too one-sided (taking a pro-Thatcher stance) for broadcast. It was nearly twenty years before the production was finally finished (airing on television in 2002), but it seems to have been much ado about nothing. Yes, the film goes out of its way to make Thatcher look heroic and to demonize her opposition, but it doesn't play too fast and loose with the actual facts. Someone who disagrees with Thatcher's aggressive stance might roll their eyes at the film's portrait of her, but they won't find much in the way of more substantial content to get upset about. Trumping all of this is the fact that the film is actually a bit dull, focusing solely on policy and allowing interesting characterization to take a back seat. This sort of thing can be done rather well, but The Falklands Play often feels far too much like simply watching politicians talk for ninety minutes. Even its passion for arguably unjustified warfare fails to give it much of a pulse. Patricia Hodge (The Elephant Man) turns in the least interesting of the three Thatcher performances, as her work runs closer to impersonation than inhabitation.
The last and best of the three films is simply entitled Margaret, which focuses on the final days of Thatcher's time in office. Thatcher is played by Lindsay Duncan with a certain sense of icy detachment; her scenes with Denis (a tender, lovely performance from Ian McDiarmid, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) in particular are a striking demonstration of a woman completely out of synch with her surroundings. There's something almost Shakespearean about her rage over her inevitable loss of power; she regards those taking stands of political principle against her as traitors. Duncan's increasingly ineffectual fury is both frightening and a little touching, as a master of political gamesmanship is slowly consumed by the machine which sustained her for so many years. Curiously, it's when Thatcher is at her most blatantly villainous that I felt for her the most; Duncan's portrait both much harsher and more empathetic than the other two turns offered. If the film has a flaw, it's that it requires perhaps a bit too much knowledge of British politics. For instance, the film opens with the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, but doesn't provide any context as to who Howe is in relation to Thatcher or why his resignation is so significant.
The films all look quite strong on DVD, with Margaret standing out as the best-looking of the bunch (it's certainly the most visually involving, as well). The office building palette of The Falklands Play makes it look a little less striking than the other two, but detail is strong on all three films and audio is consistently clean. There are no supplements included.
While the films range from middling (The Falklands Play) to mildly pleasant (Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley) to riveting (Margaret), this collection is greater than the sum of its parts. It offers a compelling, multi-shaded look at a most intriguing political figure, and it's likely to give most viewers a better understanding of who she was as a person (though don't expect it to change your feelings on who she was as a politician). It's worth a look, and serves as a good warm-up for Streep's take on the role.
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