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An ‘Iron Lady’ turns to rust.

A Fortnightly Review of

The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Written by Abi Morgan and Michael Hirst.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Coleman, Richard E Grant.
The Weinstein Company | 20th Century-Fox | Pathé
1 hour 45 minutes | US Release 30 December 2011 |UK Release 6 January 2012

By Drew Moore.
IT SEEMED A HERCULEAN task. How could Margaret Thatcher, a woman reviled by the left and feared by the right, possibly be transformed into a movie heroine? Strength — check. Charisma — check.  Wit — check. She has those in no short supply. But what about the ingredient essential to all film protagonists, male and female – vulnerability? How could she ever elicit our sympathy?

Like this: a doddery, osteoporotic old woman at a market, bundled up in a coat and headscarf, slowly makes her way to the counter to buy a pint of milk. She could be your grandmother, sweet and harmless in her gentle dotage. As she marvels at the high price of milk, her eyes slightly vacant, the clerk and customers grow impatient. The world has passed her by. She is irrelevant. With this opening punch, our hearts immediately begin to soften for the woman whom the Soviets dubbed “Iron Lady.” The filmmakers ultimately win us over with dementia, frailty – and a healthy dose of tried-and-true screen rhetoric.

Director Phyllida Lloyd told the audience at the New York premiere that The Iron Lady is not a biopic, but rather a story about “the cost of a big life.” Which is to say, it is a biopic. The snares of fame and the underbelly of success are the very stuff of biography, and Lloyd delivers them in abundance and with great panache. For Thatcher, who ascends from grocer’s daughter, to Leader of the Conservative Party, to ultimately the first and only female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1979-1990), the cost is exacted on her personal relationships, namely her family. “I cannot die washing up a teacup,” a young Margaret cautions Denis Thatcher upon his proposal of marriage. His smitten reply: “That’s why I want to marry you, my dear.” But while Denis remains a devoted, longsuffering partner throughout her career, after his death he becomes the foil to our heroine, a constant reminder of her shortcomings as mother and wife, and as a human being. “You can rewind it but you can’t change it,” he taunts her as she tries to replay an old videotape of her children on the beach. And when she appeals to patriotic duty as the driving force behind her decisions, he corrects her, “Not duty—ambition.” The widow’s bouts of dementia usher in such haunting, conscience-pricking hallucinations of Denis that, to the horror of her minders, she frantically purges every room of his clothes and belongings to rid herself of his presence.

IN A DEFT WEAVING of past and present, the audience experiences, briefly, the young Margaret, and then the Margaret Thatcher known to the world, through the present wanderings of her memory, triggered by a remark from her husband or daughter, or by a personal or household item. And seamless as these transitions are, the director, cinematographer and designers still manage to evoke vastly different worlds between present and past, between the private and the public Ms. Thatcher. The palette of muted, less saturated hues that dominate the present is a stark contrast to the lush purples, reds, blues and aquas of the Prime Minister’s attire, which burst out against the sea of parliament blacks and grays, the all-male world that initially holds her back, but over which she eventually rules. And the widow’s lonely desk, lit by a pale stream of light at the end of a dark hallway, is worlds away from the State scenes that leap off the screen with grandiloquent pans and sweeps and bombastic music, and from the street riots and IRA bombings of Thatcher’s England that are executed with frenetic, handheld cuts and grunge music.

Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, having previously collaborated with director Phyllida Lloyd in the 2008 film Mamma Mia!, the UK’s top-grossing film of all time. Streep long ago secured her reputation as a skilled technician. Her mastery of dialect and vocal mimicry has never been greater, her Thatcher “screech” a bull’s eye. Add to that the slight tilt of the head, the constipated smile (and the “important” hair), and one never pauses to question the verisimilitude of her portrayal. But her true acting rapier is nuance and subtlety. If anyone can humanize Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep can. She elevates a film that relies heavily on the biopic recipe (hero as outsider and nonconformist who struggles against great odds to succeed, accompanied by inspiring film montage—hero knocked down by success and hubris—hero redeemed by suffering and self-searching). Certainly, Thatcher’s epigrams are rich truffles for actor and audience: “People don’t think anymore. They feel.” “What kind of leader am I if I don’t try to get my own way?” However, Streep lives between the lines as fully as she lives in them. Whether listening to another character harangue her, or eating a hard-boiled egg, all it takes is a wry curl of the lip or a weary roll of the eye for her to convey emotions finer than words could ever express. In Streep’s Thatcher we see a ball-busting leader well equipped with warmongering and anti-socialist rhetoric, as well as a schoolmarm rapidly alienating her cowering Cabinet. Most affecting, we see a feeble woman trying to preserve her dignity surrounded by guardians who have already consigned her to senility. One of the most enjoyable scenes is one in which the utterly lucid patient, with acerbic wit, puts her patronizing doctor in his place.

The supporting cast are also superb. Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher never misses a comic opening, and he adroitly walks the line between emasculated husband on one hand, and critical, stabilizing force for Margaret on the other. The young Denis and Margaret, played by Harry Lloyd and Alexandra Roach, do not seem physically well-matched to their older counterparts, but they are magnetic and absolutely ebullient with the expectancy of youth. Richard E. Grant is a menacing presence as Thatcher’s Conservative nemesis Michael Heseltine, the agent of her demise, and Anthony Head’s Geoffrey Howe arouses pity as her punching bag.

IT’S TRUE THAT BOOKS are often written and movies made about famous people before they die, but still, one cannot help wondering, why Margaret Thatcher, why now? Could it be that there is a broad-based nostalgia for the Thatcher-Reagan era, a time when political correctness and focus groups and instantaneous media had yet to bridle the unapologetic rhetoric and actions of our leaders? Many hardline conservatives are suspect of Prime Minister David Cameron and his “compassionate conservatism” (a slogan that is a relic from the post-Reagan era of the elder George Bush). He’s too slippery and changeable. As for President Obama, Republicans charge him with “a lack of leadership.” And many Democrats quietly agree. “Maybe I should have voted for Hillary after all,” they ponder. What they want is an uncompromising Obama who defends liberal principles as ferociously as Thatcher and Reagan defended conservative ones. It’s hard to imagine Obama blistering his Cabinet as Thatcher does in one scene, shouting “Weak! Weak! Weak!” The Iron Lady gratifies that need in all of us to see power wielded on behalf of unyielding principles—as long as that power is curtailed when the wielder abuses it.

Pure iron is softer than most people realize. Impurities make it hard. No longer alloyed with political ambition, our heroine now offers us a glimpse of her soft core. What’s more, we see her begin to rust – sad, but inevitable, even essential.

Drew Moore is a freelance writer living in New York City. He has taught Classics and English Literature at Brooklyn College and the United States Military Academy at West Point. Currently, he is working on the first English translation of the New York City prison letters of St. John de Crèvecoeur. His reflections on genealogy appeared in The Fortnightly Review here.

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