Meryl Streep Accentuates Margaret Thatcher in ‘The Iron Lady’

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CHICAGO – It would be a cheap jab to say that “The Iron Lady” is a drag version of “J. Edgar,” and also redundant (hyy-ooh). Meryl Streep takes on the role of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with a dreamy and vague interpretation of the PM’s life that at times feels like it’s told through the wrong end of a telescope.

Encompassing a life such as Margaret Thatcher is a daunting task – she was as much reviled as lionized in her years in leadership. She came from very humble roots, and was a woman gaining power during an era where that wasn’t an easy thing to do. Screenwriter Abi Morgan (co-writer of the recent “Shame”) and director Phyllida Lloyd (”Mamma Mia!”) tackle the biography with a cinematic approach – depicting the still living Thatcher as a dementia-oriented old woman dreaming of and conjuring her own past. This technique yields some interesting passages, but is an incomplete version of her overall history.

Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) is in retirement, but still relies on the rock steadiness of her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) to get her through the day. Once one of the most powerful leaders of the Western World as British Prime Minister, during a significant transition period in the UK, Thatcher now assesses her life through a series of memories and dreams. She is taken care of by her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), and confounded by these interpretations of the past.

Jim Broadbent (Denis Thatcher) and Meryl Streep (Margaret Thatcher) in ‘Iron Lady’
Photo credit: Alex Bailey for Pathe Productions/The Weinstein Company

Margaret Roberts (portrayed in her youth by Alexandra Roach) was a shopkeeper’s daughter, who was inspired by her the leadership rhetoric of her father (Iain Glen). An overachiever, she has ahead-of-her-time notions for her role in society, a view shared by her eventual husband Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd, in youth). After losing her first election, she is driven to conquer the rough-and-tumble of the British political system, eventually being named Prime Minister in 1979. Like her American counterpart Ronald Reagan, she sought to narrow the role of government at home and fight the perceived enemies abroad. She survives intense criticism and an assassination attempt to establish an unforgettable legacy.

What is most fascinating about this film is the realization that Thatcher accomplished so much through an period where women were an unusual sight in the corridors of power and leadership. The female team of writer Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd emphasized that struggle, which softens the harshness of Thatcher’s later hard line policies. Alexandra Roach as young Margaret nearly outdoes Meryl Streep, and with less screen time. She had to somehow convey the roots of her character’s iron countenance, and her performance in that evolution hits the right notes.

The film actually weakens a bit when Streep takes over, portraying Thatcher from the 1960s onward. The gauzy quality of the memories, and the appearance of her dead husband to “advise” her as an old lady, doesn’t work as well as the actual life story, and even that becomes a laundry list of happenings, with no insight into who Thatcher is. However, Streep’s performance is nicely accomplished, and manages to capture how the world remembers Thatcher.

Similar to the recent “J. Edgar,” “The Iron Lady” uses a flashback technique through the viewpoint of the actual historic figure. Hoover has been dead for 40 years, Thatcher is still alive. Perhaps that is the reason, coupled with the slightly different story structure of the two films, that allows the G-man’s story to be a bit more interesting than the Iron Lady. Director Lloyd and screenwriter Morgan are presuming how a living person thinks and feels, which seems too close to the actual bone.

Lady Among Men: Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in ‘Iron Lady’
Photo credit: Alex Bailey for Pathe Productions/The Weinstein Company

As history, the film has some notable moments. Besides the impression of a female rising to ultimate power in a patriarchal society, it has a bit of the clash between the working class and Thatcher’s support of the commerce class. Britain was one of the first wealthy societies to offer aid to the less fortunate through social programs. Thatcher came in and crushed that belief in such “entitlements,” making her the enemy of unions and the middle class. These are the roots of the current economic debates throughout Europe and within the United States, especially in the 2012 election year.

If you are fascinated with Margaret Thatcher, than there is no better treat than to have the honorable Meryl Streep expound upon her. If you have no idea who Thatcher was or what she stood for, the film may be hard to follow. This defines both the highlights and the weaknesses of “The Iron Lady.”

“The Iron Lady” opens everywhere on January 13th. Featuring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Iain Glen, Olivia Colman and Harry Lloyd. Screenplay by Abi Morgan. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald,

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