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January 11, 2012

Heavy Mettle

As England’s “Iron Lady” Meryl Streep advances from Parliament to Prime Minister, mops up Communism & serves decent cups of tea

By Felicia Feaster

The filmmakers’ decision to employ flashbacks and loopy non-linear sequences that don’t advance the historical narrative may be off-putting to some, but Streep carries the day as the helmut-haired, purse carrying and persevering Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Meryl Street as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Meryl Street as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "Iron Lady"

 

It is impossible to talk about the bio-pic of Margaret Thatcher, The Irony Lady, without mentioning another tour de force, the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance from Meryl Streep.

Streep as Thatcher has the endearing overbite, the imperial air, the froth of helmet hair and the pugnacious spirit of Britain’s most famous post-Churchill politician down pat.

British director Phyllida Lloyd oversaw a vibrantly sexy Streep in Mamma Mia! In The Iron Lady, the tone of their collaboration has shifted dramatically; grey and overcast instead of Greek island sunny.

In the opening scenes of The Iron Lady, Thatcher is a pitifully hunched octogenarian in a dowdy trench coat, a kerchief hiding her powerhouse hair. Thatcher shuffles through a London bodega with her pint of milk, stepped around by faster, annoyed yuppies and kids entombed in headphones. The Iron Lady is bowed and weak, hardly the valiant foe of Soviet-era communism.

Lloyd takes an interesting, occasionally misguided tack in The Iron Lady, documenting Thatcher’s life in reverse. Lloyd begins circa 2009 or thereabouts with the decline. Thatcher is long out of her prime minister office, but convinced in her dotage that her beloved—but dead—husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) is still alive and living with her in their London flat. Lloyd’s approach instantly endows Thatcher’s tale with an aura of regret, sadness and elicits a great deal of empathy too. No matter what your political bent, it is a tragic thing to see a once formidable woman now hunched and delusional.  The tactic democratizes and brings Thatcher down to a human level as she copes with the old age and the diminishment of her powers.

But screenwriter Abi Morgan (who also wrote this year’s Shame) and her relentless focus on Thatcher’s private life (as it is imagined) will undoubtedly rub many the wrong way for crowding out the significant historical details of Thatcher’s life.

Both Morgan and Lloyd have a tendency to go for melodrama when sticking to the details of Thatcher’s life might be more effective. In one slightly misguided scene the bathrobed, elderly Thatcher slouches through the meeting rooms of her former Parliament, as the present intrudes on the past. It’s not only undignified, it’s just short of loopy.

And yet, there is often poignance in the approach too, and a defiance of the usual dramatic build-of most bio pictures, where it is always onward and upwards. And regardless of how you feel about the geriatric framing device, Lloyd’s take on Thatcher’s early life is fascinating. The daughter of a conservative grocer and local politician who subscribed to an up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy, young Maggie is a daddy’s girl who lives by his example.

Flashbacks picture young Maggie (Alexandra Roach) as a milky maiden with a defiant spirit. She emerges from a family so bourgeois and budget-minded, that she runs back to cover the butter during a World War II blitzkrieg. One’s bread and butter are more fundamental than life and limb. Relentlessly her father’s daughter, Maggie is more apt to identify with his shopkeeper’s ambition than the housewifey nonentity represented by her mum. It’s an internalized sexism that Thatcher appears to have retained her whole life long. In her old age Thatcher tells her grown daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), “I’ve always preferred the company of men.” In the present day scenes, Thatcher is cruel and dismissive of poor Carol, seeing her as another emblem of feminine weakness, even as Carol rushes obediently to her elderly mother’s side.

Lloyd doesn’t shy away from Thatcher’s flaws. She is often presented as strident, intolerant, and (like so many humble-people-turned-powerful) self-satisfied and unforgiving in her conviction that everyone is capable of such transformation. In flashbacks, as Thatcher’s political ambitions grow from first female parliament member to party leader and then prime minister, she seems oblivious or just unconcerned about the toll her career takes on her family.

The sort of balancing act that Thatcher is forced to walk between no-nonsense, fearless leader and non-threatening little lady is illustrated in a scene where she bellicosely defends the Falklands War to a journalist and then seconds later offers him a spot of tea with the query, “shall I be mother?”

Both her class and her sex suggest that Thatcher always stood apart from her posh parliamentary colleagues. Early in her political career she puts a dinner party gathering of upper crust male politicos in their place by reminding them she may be a humble grocer’s daughter, but she also graduated from Oxford.

Lloyd does a sort of balancing act herself, paying homage to the realities of the Commie-fighting hellcat that made Thatcher so celebrated among conservatives on both sides of the pond, while also suggesting that she was a female heroine in her own right for the very fact of her ambition and achievements. As she tells her young beau Denis (Harry Lloyd) when he proposes marriage, “One’s life must matter Denis...I cannot die washing up a tea cup.” By the end, The Iron Lady has managed to both play her part in toppling the Berlin Wall while washing up a tea cup or two.

The Iron Lady opens Friday Jan. 13 at local Atlanta theaters.