on January 23, 2012
Even though, technically, I was born when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, I grew up in Margaret Thatcher's Britain. All of my earliest memories of major socio-political stories - the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982, the Brighton hotel bombing of 1984, the miner's strike and general industrial unrest of 1984 and 1985, the Poll Tax riots of 1990, and various international issues involving the IRA and the former Soviet Union - all occurred during her tenure. Whether you love her or loathe her (and many people do genuinely loathe her and what she did to the country), there is no escaping the fact that she was a massively influential and important person: the first woman ever to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the seventh-longest serving Prime Minister in history, and the longest serving since Queen Victoria was on the throne.
Phyllida Lloyd's film, The Iron Lady, charts the life and career of Thatcher, from her working-class birth in the small town of Grantham in 1925 and her early career as both a chemist and a barrister, to her entry into political life as a Member of Parliament in 1959, and her rise to power during the late 1970s, before eventually being removed from office in 1990 - all from the point of view of framing story examining the increasingly debilitating effects of the dementia afflicting the now 86-year-old Baroness. Meryl Streep plays the leading role, and is supported by a host of British acting talent, including Jim Broadbent as her husband Denis, as well as Anthony Head, Richard E. Grant, Roger Allam, Julian Wadham, John Sessions, Nicholas Farrell and Michael Pennington as the various other politicians who defined the era.
The music for The Iron Lady was originally due to be composed by English composer Clint Mansell, but for reasons yet to be disclosed his score was thrown out fairly late in the day, and was replaced with one by Thomas Newman. These days, Newman is a frustrating composer, for two reasons - firstly, because I know what great music he is capable of writing (The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, Meet Joe Black, The Horse Whisperer and so on), and secondly because he so rarely writes it anymore. The Iron Lady is Newman's fourth score of 2011, following The Adjustment Bureau, The Help and The Debt, none of which greatly grabbed my attention, but thankfully The Iron Lady bucks the trend, mixing his now-familiar contemporary rhythmic style with several warm and emotional cues that recall his excellent earlier work.
In parts, Newman's music recalls that which Alexandre Desplat wrote for his films about contemporary British political life, The Queen and The Special Relationship. Cues such as the opening "MT", and later cues such as "Grocer's Daughter", the second half of "Swing Parliament", "Nation of Shopkeepers" and "Statecraft" have a bustling, energetic aspect, with pizzicato strings and various metallic chimes and shakers giving Thatcher's life a musical echo of the sense of forward motion and destiny that defined her rise to power. A main theme of sorts, a rising string motif, appears in "Grocer's Daughter" and "Nation of Shopkeepers" amongst others, but is really the only recurring thematic content in a score which otherwise tends to present itself as a series of musical vignettes, looking back on a life in much the same way as the film presents the key events in Thatcher's past in flashback format.
Elsewhere, there are a few moments of rousing British patriotism that William Walton or Edward Elgar would be proud to call their own, from the soft and warm nobility of the lovely first half of "Swing Parliament", the classically refined "The Great in Great Britain", and the wonderfully stirring and flag-waving "Discord and Harmony", which features that Thomas Newman rarity, a chorus! The delicate harp performance in "Denis" attempts to capture the unusual, much misunderstood relationship between Thatcher and her devoted husband, while the all-too-brief "Airey Neave" illustrates the warm relationship between the young politician and her ill-fated mentor, murder by an IRA car bomb in 1979.
These cues are offset by much more abrasive contemporary pieces such as "Crisis of Confidence" and "Community Charge", which evoke the changing landscape of modern Britain, as well as the increasing dissatisfaction with Thatcher's political policies, with a gritty electronic element, churning cello ostinati, and urgent, almost frantic rhythms. To cap it all, an excellent militaristic piece for prominent snare drums, piano and electronics features in "Exclusion Zone", giving musical voice to the Falklands conflict that dominated much of her early years in power, and cemented her reputation as a woman not to be trifled with.
Although hardly groundbreaking, The Iron Lady does represent something of a return to form for Newman, whose recent lackluster output had begun to frustrate long-time admirers of his work such as myself. The more large-scale pomp-and-circumstance cues are excellent pieces of effective pastiche, and Newman cleverly captures the duality of Thatcher's time in power with music that is appealing and optimistic on one hand, but gritty and dramatic when it needs to be. The classical and show tune interludes that depict Thatcher's own musical tastes are generally well-chosen, effectively complementing the score, and resulting in album that is an enjoyable diversion for fans of Newman's writing.