By now we should be thoroughly inured to Meryl Streep’s transformational abilities.
Even so, her Oscar-nabbing performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady comes as a shock.
Yes, she gets immeasurable help from an unsung crew of costumers, hairdressers, and makeup artists. But as with any Streep performance, the magic goes far deeper than the surface. The way in which Streep’s Maggie Thatcher moves, holds herself, speaks — it is little short of eerie.
Streep’s believability in the role goes a long way toward ameliorating the movie’s biggest drawback — namely that director Phyllida Law (Mamma Mia!) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (Brick Lane, Shame) are deeply ambivalent about their subject.
That Margaret Thatcher was an amazing individual — the first (and to date only) female Prime Minister of Great Britain — is obvious. She’s a logical candidate for cinematic treatment.
But Thatcher’s status as a feminist (or, perhaps more appropriately, a female) icon is eroded here by the filmmakers’ obvious distaste for her often ruthless conservative policies — policies viewed by liberals and labor as so pro-business as to destroy the traditional fabric of working-class English life.
The result is an emotionally cool film that on the one hand celebrates Thatcher’s genre-busting accomplishments, and on the other laments that she ever took office.
Yeah, it’s kind of a mixed message.
Iron Lady is a memory play. In the present Margaret Thatcher is suffering from dementia. The opening scene finds her shopping in a small neighborhood grocery, having wandered away from her home and the handlers assigned to see after her.
Once back in her own rooms, she holds conversations with her deceased husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent) and flashes back to different periods in her life (she’s played as a young woman by Alexandra Roach).
There’s a sweetness in her courtship by Dennis, and a good deal of starchy spunk in her handling of the genteely chauvinistic members of her own Conservative Party, who cannot imagine a woman holding political power.
Much is made of Maggie’s relationship with her daughter (Olivia Coleman). On the other hand, her son is a mystery, a fellow who lives abroad and perhaps harbors some resentments about his mum.
But unlike, say, The King’s Speech, this is not an enterprise calculated to leave us with a case of the warm fuzzies. The Iron Lady is a chilly and, if not exactly cruel, an uncaring movie. It offers us no avenue to become emotionally invested in Margaret Thatcher’s life and career. And as a result it becomes less and less compelling.
But, boy, that Meryl Streep sure can act!
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.