In 1990, Ian (my brother’s friend from Sheffield, England) came over to the house and showed us a fax that had been sent by his family. There was only one sentence, and it said: “You can come home now, she’s gone.” And that was how we learned of the political demise of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, aka The Iron Lady, who, according to Ian, did to England what Hamlet did to Ophelia — especially regarding the Falklands War.
Fast-forward two decades and a couple of hefty Thatcher biographies (plus a best-selling autobiography), and now Meryl Streep plays Mrs. Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Streep is now 62, and it could just be that fate and the winds of cinema had been waiting all this time for the great actress to age like fine wine, enabling director Phyllida Lloyd to capture her performance in a definitive stream of supremely precise portrayals.
Streep has Mrs. Thatcher absolutely down — the way her eyes always seem to be looking down her distinctive nose (prosthetic in this movie, though you wouldn’t know it), her mannerisms when speaking in Parliament, the way her voice seems to trill and rumble at the same time. For all intents and purposes, Streep completely submerges her personality in Thatcher’s — the woman we see here is not Hollywood’s most respected actress honing her excellence but, quite simply, one of the most formidable politicians in the history of Great Britain.
It’s probably not surprising that Lloyd and her crew seem overawed and hesitant — the camera approaches Thatcher a little like a blushing rookie reporter, dazzled by her authoritative air. All the power in the film rests in the hands of Dame Margaret, and both she and the story take it as read that the rest of the world (including Thatcher’s husband, Sir Denis) should play second fiddle, several steps behind her courtly figure. And considering Thatcher’s actual career record and the tremendous iron grip (pun fully intended) she had on her office, this movie will likely please her to no end.
Or will it? Interestingly, the last time Streep did a spot-on portrayal of another strong-willed woman (chef Julia Child in “Julie & Julia”) it was said that Child resented the content of the original book (based on a blog by Julie Powell) and expressed distaste at the prospect of a movie adaptation. Biopics of contemporary icons are a prickly subject, especially when the subject still happens to be around. Thatcher herself has been incapacitated and hospitalized for some time.
As if to stress this fact, the story sways back and forth from Thatcher (Streep) in a state of senile dementia and rambling about her brilliance in Parliament to Denis (Jim Broadbent) — dead for some years — to the struggles of her youth and triumphs that came in late middle age.
First a chemist and then a barrister, Thatcher’s personal bywords were advancement and enhancement, and she deployed both when she metaphorically pounded on the doors of the British government to let her in. She loved power more than she valued money, and as Denis once remarks to her in the film: “As for the rest of us — your husband and children can go to the dogs, isn’t that right?”
Denis’ agonizing was one of the things Thatcher had to endure on the home front. At work, she faced legions of sour-faced men shoving sarcasm her way like iced buns. In her early days as a Member of Parliament, her personal space was a closetlike room in which someone had set up an ironing board.
Still, Thatcher thrived in this environment. Streep’s portrayal here is of a woman who is energized by adversity: Difficulties serve to keep her going and fuel her convictions. She comes off as an ambitious and razor-sharp professional, but she also seems to lacks a certain social sense. As Britain’s only ever female prime minister and the only PM to have held office for 11 years, it apparently was enough for Thatcher to be herself, and to be so for as long as possible. Debating was not her forte: She pushed and bullied and cajoled.
The movie highlights that lack of sense. During its portrayal of the Falklands uproar, Thatcher snaps to an opposing politician (who points out the cost and sacrifice of war) that “I do battle every single day of my life!” as if that was what clinched it. And when she is pressed to do better for the homeless and unemployed, she declares in those famous words, “There is no such thing as society!” and implies people should fend for themselves. “I always did,” says this woman, for whom inner strength is as much a natural part of her physical makeup as red blood cells.
There is no criticism, however. According to “The Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher was a gale-force wind that rendered all arguments meaningless. The movie, therefore, lets the lady do her thing — and in doing so, it’s clearly missed a trick or two.