ALTHOUGH she had directed Meryl Streep before in Mamma Mia!, Phyllida Lloyd felt a moment of “congenital apprehension” when it was suggested the American star should play Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
“Margaret Thatcher - that’s two words of provocation and the next two are American actress,” the director says, “and despite the fact that I would have killed to work with her again I felt that already this was escalating into something which might be hard to cope with.
“Quite soon after I came to realise that you needed a superstar to play Thatcher, there was something about the size of just the idea of her,” continues Lloyd who also came to see that the very fact of being American brought something to the film.
“Meryl being an outsider in a way informed everything about the way it worked. There was Margaret Thatcher working on her voice, working on her hair and her costume and there was Meryl working on her voice.
“When Meryl walked into the House of Commons (on set) and there were 350 British actors staring at her with (an attitude of) ‘let’s hear it, let’s hear the voice’ you could just feel the tension and feel Meryl’s will to command them. It was as if one slip of the accent and the game was up so it was really a mirror into how Thatcher felt, the tension between her and say Ted Heath’s first cabinet. How even then there was a sense of the class war.”
The director is at pains to emphasise that The Iron Lady is not a conventional biopic of the controversial Tory prime minister. Abi Morgan’s screenplay shows Thatcher as she is today, suffering from dementia, and looking back on incidents in her life and career.
That was what first drew Lloyd to the project in fact. “It was about something else, it wasn’t about Margaret Thatcher’s policies. It was about power and loss of power and contemplation of old age and what it feels like dealing with being alone. That made it more universal and a bigger film than was she right or was she wrong?”
Thatcher’s entourage are reportedly not best pleased about her being portrayed in this way. “Whether there is a moral dimension about creating a piece about someone who is alive and suffering is something we did consider very seriously,” insists the director. “I think that Carol Thatcher had put this picture of her mother’s mental frailty into the public domain by publishing her book and then serialising it and that was Abi Morgan’s starting point for the film and inspired her to set the story in the present.
“It’s not something that is spoken of enough, it is still a taboo subject and so we felt less hesistant than if somehow we had invented this story or taken the roots of it from gossip and hearsay.”
On the other hand presenting Thatcher as a frail old lady could bring accusations of making an oversympathetic film about someone still loathed in many quarters.
Lloyd argues that King Lear was a tyrannical man whom no one would probably want to have voted for but that is not the point of Shakespeare’s play. “It didn’t seem to be odd for us to be asking the audience to empathise with someone struggling with dementia.
“It seemed to be something that was worthy of the study and therefore I am not embarrassed that I am asking people to think about themselves, their mother, their father, their granny. This wasn’t a documentary which I am sure others will make - on her death I am sure there will be an outpouring of documentary that addresses this - but we were wanting to make a film about something else.”