Meryl Streep, you may have heard, plays Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and it’s necessary to say at the outset that she does a formidable impersonation. Both Patricia Hodge, who portrayed Thatcher in The Falklands Play (BBC, 02), and Lindsay Duncan, who portrayed her in Margaret (BBC, 09), which recounts her toppling in 1990, caught her energy and starchiness, but neither replicated her body language. Streep’s performance, which spans some 40 years in the former prime minister’s life, meticulously captures Thatcher’s strident public persona—her hectoring bray, her imperious diction, her piercing glare—and her aura of invincibility. Showing her in reduced circumstances as a disempowered widow, fretful, doddery, and full of imaginings in the early stages of dementia, at the start and end of the film, Streep still moves her head and widens her eyes the way Thatcher did when speaking in public, those mannerisms registering incredulity and anguish instead of the old zealotry.
“I don’t recognize myself,” the old woman laments in one of several moments calculated to build sympathy for a politician who wasn’t noted for that quality herself when sinking the Argentinian battleship Belgrano in 1982 and vanquishing striking miners in 1985, the latter victory her most symbolically ideological. Though Streep’s geriatric Maggie demands compassion and is likely to win it from the broad British middle class, those who suffered under her rule and bother to see the film may well remain unmoved.
Written by Abi Morgan (Shame) and directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!), The Iron Lady is a conventional biopic but a problematic picture. After the earliest press screenings, word spread that it presented “Thatcher without Thatcherism.” For sound commercial reasons, the movie is entranced less with the dry stuff of policy-making than with the courtship of the ardent young Margaret Roberts (the excellent Alexandra Roach) by the young Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd), her entrance into a House of Commons populated by snide, baying men, and her acquisition of power as the first woman prime minister in the West. It further relays how the septuagenarian Thatcher refuses to accept that jocular Denis (now Jim Broadbent) has died, how she copes with comparative anonymity, and how sorely she misses her absent son.
Without being remotely trenchant, the film does however refer to what she and her ministers sowed (savage public-service cuts, sweeping privatization, the fostering of a free-market economy) and what the country reaped (the Brixton riots, mass unemployment, the miners’ strike, the Northern Ireland hunger strikes). The problem is that Morgan and Lloyd offer this information uncritically, checking it off as they check off the Irish National Liberation Army’s assassination of Thatcher’s parliamentary mentor Airey Neave and the Provisional IRA’s Brighton hotel bombing, which nearly killed Thatcher. In contrast, the depiction of her decision to have the Belgrano sunk outside the exclusion zone around the Falklands, killing 323 Argentinian military personnel (772 were rescued), implicitly admonishes her for such an unconscionable action.
So, as thrilling as it is to watch Streep imitate Thatcher, The Iron Lady feels like a missed opportunity, not to blame and cast aspersions, but to weigh and assess. Such is probably beyond the scope of a movie designed and directed for the mainstream market, with one eye on humor (Maggie refusing to give up her pearls in an image makeover, Denis doing a Charlie Chaplin walk) and another on pathos. Of course, one wonders how this material would have fared in the hands of Ken Loach, who 20 years ago in Hidden Agenda, for example, made his Airey Neave surrogate a dangerous right-wing conspirator, whereas in The Iron Lady he is simply the nice guy who takes Thatcher under his wing.