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Flashbacks have been around almost as long as celluloid. For nearly 100 years (the first example is generally considered to be D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance), they’ve provided information on earlier chapters of character and plot not otherwise accessible within a progressive narrative structure. Frequently considered disruptive, the device is roundly rejected by naturalist filmmakers.
But some films cannot do without. And if these films succeed, it’s often because the flashback is used not merely as a source of additional material but to comment and reflect upon states of mind outside the present-day narrative, in particular, as a cinematographic metaphor for memory.
The Iron Lady is a case in point. Playing Margaret Thatcher under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, an astounding Meryl Streep travels back and forth via flashback from an increasingly demented present to the remembered clarity of seminal moments: the young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) in thrall to her father’s ‘can do’ postwar economics, the perceived triumphs of her later career as she takes on the trade unions or Conservative elders or Argentina.
At her side since 1949, Denis (an irrepressible Jim Broadbent) appears as a long-suffering husband consigned to the role of houseman whilst his wife indulges her political obsessions.
Following his death and the onset of her own mental frailty, she finds that he is still part of her confused days – hanging around the house, doing the crossword, or fixing her a whisky. She knows that his presence is a sign of sickness, a trick of her memory, a function of guilt. She knows it, and so do we because it’s all there, in flashbacks during which friend and foe rise up, random and unbidden, reminding her of what she did and asking why.
A small price, one might argue, compared to the price her policies exacted from Britain’s industry or its trade unions. Seen in individual terms, and these are clearly those of the director, it is indeed a high price to pay.
the Iron Lady | Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (UK, France 2011) with Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent. Starts March 1.
Equally comfortable on the stage, the television or the big screen, Jim Broadbent has become one of England’s most dependable actors, while stints in international blockbusters like Moulin Rouge, Bridget Jones’ Diary and the Harry Potter films have introduced the respected, award-winning thespian to a global audience.
He spoke to us about his latest role – as Margaret Thatcher’s long-suffering husband Denis – and why he thinks The Iron Lady is both controversial and Shakespearean.
What kind of character is Denis Thatcher?
He was very quiet. He deliberately kept his own personality out of the frame, as it were. His line was: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt,” which is a good line because it shows his humour and how he approached his job of consort.
Behind every strong woman must be a really strong man?
I don’t know about every woman, but I think there was in this case. He retired at the same moment that she took over leadership of the party, so he was available from that moment on. I think she appreciated him hugely.
Was he as funny as you are in the film?
He certainly had humour. I mean, you’d need a sense of humour. I don’t know how much of a sense of humour she had. She famously didn’t understand some of the jokes that were written for her by speechwriters, didn’t know what they were really.
Is there a Shakespearean quality to the project?
I think there is. It’s King Lear in its own way…
Phyllida Lloyd has worked more in the theatre than in film. Does that come across in the way she directs?
Totally. She’s a very sure-footed director in every way, having worked so much on big, big theatre productions. She’s only made two films, but she’s totally confident and brave and prepared to take great risks.
Why could this film be risky?
I think Margaret Thatcher was always controversial and the film was going to be controversial to a degree. I mean, which line do you take on a film about Margaret Thatcher? Which political line? And I think Abi Morgan and Phyllida and Meryl indeed have handled it very deftly and found another way into it. It’s generated a good deal of debate. At least in Britain.
With this role did you discover a new side to Margaret Thatcher?
I was never a great fan of hers, politically. But doing the film, and seeing her as she might be in her later years, certainly humanised her. You feel the vulnerability, the fear, the doubt – which I hadn’t focused on before. But obviously, we’re all human and that’s one of the things that the film does.
She did cry publicly, once, I think, when her son was lost in the desert…
I remember her crying when she left office. That was sort of shocking to see how important it was to her and how betrayed she felt, and that was, I think, part of the starting point of the film, really. That moment of her need to be in power and her need to be in that position was suddenly awfully evident.
After doing this film, do you like her more?
Yes, I’m more sympathetic, because, as I say, she didn’t want to show any of that other side to her and she was two-dimensional, and now she’s become, in my mind, a little bit more three-dimensional. But it’s only a fiction, we’ve only invented what we put on the screen.