Courting controversy: the biopic
A haggard, feeble old lady shuffles onto screen. Her posture is crooked, her eyes glazed over with the semi-delusions of an addled brain. It is difficult to believe that beneath the withered exterior and absent mutterings resides Meryl Streep, an actress who epitomises the timeless glamour of Hollywood.
Even more disconcerting is that the decrepit figure she portrays is Margaret Thatcher, a behemothic politician who has polarised opinion for generations.
Streep is certainly deserving of the critical acclaim that has already landed her a Golden Globe for Best Actress, but The Iron Lady proves that, even in fictional form, Maggie is unparalleled in her ability to provoke debate.
The main source of contention amongst film critics and even politicians concerns the sometimes brutal depiction of Thatcher’s dementia.
Before the film was even released, The Daily Mail claimed that a screen test of the film in August was met with “revulsion”, and how some viewers thought it was a distasteful portrayal of “a granny going mad”.
Max Pemberton of The Daily Telegraph claimed to have felt “sickened at what I’d been party to” in an article only two weeks ago. One gets the impression that if this had been a glorified documentary that simply reconstructed the events of the Thatcher years, in the ilk of 2009’s tame TV drama Margaret, a lot of fuss would have been avoided. However, biopics like ‘The Iron Lady’, are not without precedent.
Uplifting films such as 2008’s Milk are contrasted with more whimsical approaches such as Oliver Stone’s W.
What all of these films have in common is their penchant for the shocking and scandalous.
Hollywood is an industry that relies almost completely on captivating an audience who may only be semi-interested to begin with. Despite the disclaimer at the start of Nixon that claims the film is a quest for the truth, directors and studios have no problem crossing the thin line between honesty and insensitivity. The Iron Lady is no different. It has only two hours to hammer home a message about age, power, grief and remorse.
It seems that a lot of this controversy is based on a crucial misunderstanding. Having real people transferred onto the big screen creates a sense of familiarity that dupes people into believing the film must be one hundred percent accurate. The Queen is an excellent film but its attraction is based on the creation of fiction within a framework of familiarity. Understanding the context draws people in and, for everyone’s benefit, exacerbates the entertainment value.
There is no doubt that film studios will continue to produce political biopics that court controversy. It is also likely that the uneasy relationship between compromise-orientated politics and money making entertainment will continue.