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‘The Iron Lady’ finds Streep transcending dodgy politics

The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Written by Abi Morgan
UK, 2011

Is it just me, or is it that Meryl Streep really can’t go wrong with anything?

The Iron Lady, directed by Phyllida Lloyd of Mamma Mia fame, stars Meryl Streep at her unrivalled usual – the most nominated actress ever is almost disconcertingly perfect as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Apart from the uncanny physical transmogrification into Thatcher at different ages (which will probably win Best Make-up unless Academy members go blind by voting time), Streep has a breeze of a time capturing the annoying quirks, mannerisms, and above all spunk of the first female Prime Minster in British history.

Marketed as a look at power and the price Thatcher pays for it, a tag line which probably has a better chance of drawing in North American film viewers, The Iron Lady is rather about the unlikely ascent of a supremely stubborn, lower middle-class shopkeeper’s daughter to the highest ranks of power. This is a premise, however, which the film itself does a lot to undermine as it continually hammers in that for Maggie power is a by-product of doing what you believe is right – for example selling off industries to allies, cutting social spending, screwing the Irish – as Maggie herself puts it, the medicine is bitter but the patient needs it. And even though one may be averse to the political ideology or Thatcher as a symbol, Streep’s charismatic tour-de-force incarnation makes it impossible not to be fascinated with Maggie all while loathing her tyrannical character. The textbook perfection of Streep’s performance (the accent, the hairstyle, the gait are all there) is enlivened by the poignant vulnerability of the latter-day Thatcher who, Churchill-like, knows how she likes her whisky even when dementia has set in.

Fittingly, the film glances over the political and economic record of the longest-serving British prime minister of the twentieth century and instead focuses on the struggle it took to get to and stay at the top. Ironically, while the senile Thatcher berates ‘feelings’ to her doctor, complaining that nowadays people ascribe inordinate importance to what and how they feel rather than to thought and action – this stiff upper lip presumably having been a prerequisite for Maggie to ever make it into the macho, or one should say gentleman’s world of British politics, this remains a quintessentially female film (scripted by the co-writer of Shame, no less). For what biopic of a male leader would ever have the guts to perseverate so naggingly all along on the excruciating pain of widowhood? What at first may seem a plot omission – Denis Thatcher’s death is not shown- no doubt reifies Thatcher’s denial of her husband’s death.  Maggie in her senile days is unable to let go of the memories of her husband and cannot fathom allowing his clothes to be taken away a decade or so after his death. The film’s tacit, unglamorous thesis seems to be precisely this: the toughest decision this unassailable woman, who has unflinchingly braved rabid miners, intractable ‘terrorists’, a land-grabbing Argentine junta, and the daily if not hourly sexism in Westminster, is accepting the loss of a spouse and facing the loneliness at the end of one’s life.

Nevermind the politics, the quibble, the power games, the Machiavellian disloyalties –  fortunately this is a female film about a widowed, senile grandmother.

Zornitsa Staneva