I admit I was biased against the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady. Not, you understand, against Thatcher and her Tory politics. Against Meryl Streep and her accents. Which are great, no doubt. But I went in resolved not to fall for her pyrotechnics yet again. I wanted realism.
Well, it didn't take long to realize that I was watching not only one of the greatest impersonations I'd ever seen — but one that was also emotionally real.
The Iron Lady has a free-form structure. It drifts back and forth between Thatcher as an old woman, in the early stages of dementia, and Thatcher rising to power, with Alexandra Roach playing Thatcher, very well, in her late teens and twenties. The first thing you notice about Streep is that her make-up is uncanny — and also that she inhabits it fully. She has big false teeth and a voice that is, even in Thatcher's fading state, a nasal trumpet. Streep gets the music in the voice and through the music, the mind.
As the middle-aged Thatcher, Streep plays a woman armored for battle, a female in a male chauvinist's world and a Tory in a quasi-socialist one. Her lacquered hair signals strength, her pearl necklaces a pride in the fruits of her wealth. Her philosophy of free enterprise comes from her shop-owner father, seen in flashbacks preaching self-reliance over welfare. But Margaret's prickly spirit is all her own. In an early scene, she's furious being directed to sit with the ladies while men who have been wooing her to run for office move into the drawing room to smoke cigars.
The director, Phyllida Lloyd, and writer, Abi Morgan, clearly admire her feminism — not that Thatcher would use that word — but are studiously neutral about her politics. This has already goaded viewers and critics who'd like to see Thatcher's ideas given a proper airing. And it must be admitted that on that level the film is weak tea. You'll have to make up your own mind on the merits of say, Prime Minister Thatcher's decision in the early eighties to attack Argentine's junta after it seizes the Falkland Islands. But it's hard not to thrill to Streep when her Thatcher talks tough, as she does to the patronizing Alexander Haig, played by Matthew Marsh.
"We will stand on principle or we will not stand at all," says Thatcher.
"But Margaret, with all due respect, when one has been to war..." says Haig, before Thatcher interrupts him.
"With all due respect sir," Thatcher says. "I have done battle every single day of my life. And many men have underestimated me before. This lot seem bound to do the same. But they will rue the day."
In later scenes in which Thatcher quarrels with Michael Heseltine played by Richard E. Grant over how to cope with an economic crisis, the political machinations were harder — at least for this American — to follow. What's clear is that the filmmakers finally view Thatcher as someone with an inflexible and somewhat limited intellect. The imperviousness to criticism that brought her to power also leads to her downfall, which is swift and dramatized in short, brusque scenes with little emotional kick.
Yet the film as a whole is extremely moving. What clinches it, I think, are the scenes between Streep and Jim Broadbent as her husband, Denis, alive in flashbacks but a fantasy companion in Thatcher's scenes as an old lady, long after he has has died. Denis was often spoofed and ridiculed in the U.K., but here, you see the sweet-tempered clown who took off Margaret's edge and made her laugh.
Some former Thatcher allies have expressed outrage over scenes in which Thatcher suffers from the delusion she's still Prime Minister. In one, directing staff to release a statement of condolence after a terrorist bombing. But I think those scenes make her look more admirable than pathetic. So much else is gone, yet Thatcher's sense of civic duty is undimmed. Unlike the masks of many — arguably most — politicians, the one Streep presents in The Iron Lady is held in place by character, not expediency. Streep makes you think it was the role Margaret Thatcher was born to play.
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