A few months ago, The Onion ran a headline declaring, “Court Rules Meryl Streep Unable to Be Tried By Jury As She Has No Peers.” In The Iron Lady, Streep delivered yet another incredible performance in what I thought was a compelling, artfully made biopic of Margaret Thatcher. Peerless seems about right.
The Iron Lady opens on Margaret Thatcher running to the corner store to buy butter and having breakfast with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). The catch is that Denis has been dead for years and Margaret has finally decided to donate his belongings to charity. Over the course of the film, Thatcher, now in her late 80s, struggles to let go of her life partner while remembering the volatile course of her rise to power, 11-year term as Britain’s first female prime minister, and eventual resignation. The film really tells two stories. Margaret and Denis’s fifty-year marriage provides insight into the woman whose political career earned her both admiration and animosity.
As Thatcher, Streep is phenomenal. Her performance has such range and amazing physicality, that even as someone who regularly sings her praises, I was astounded. Her most impressive work is as Thatcher in her late 80s. I kept forgetting that Streep herself is only 62. Her movements, facial expressions, and speech don’t look like a younger person trying to act aged, as often happens. As Thatcher in her prime, Streep commands scenes in a way that gave me chills. The role could have easily become an impersonation, but Streep’s performance is impeccable. Alexandra Roach plays young Thatcher in the years between World War II and her early career in parliament. She was also incredible. Her mannerisms and facial expressions so closely mirrored Streep’s that I had to remind myself that it was a different person. Jim Broadbent plays a loveable and patient Denis opposite Streep’s Margaret. Though he could have been overshadowed by Streep, his silliness and subtle performance shine through.
The details of the production that went into creating various settings ranging from the late 1940’s through the present were accurate without distracting from the story. The whole production of the film is consistently high-quality. I enjoyed the various costumes, classic cars, and Thatcher’s hats. Some of my favorite moments of the film were in the early days of her career with her 1950’s housewife dresses and vintage campaign materials.
What I most loved about this movie was the way the screenplay and Streep portray incredibly human moments in a legendary life. My favorite part is when Margaret, tired and frustrated, commands a hallucination of Denis to go away. Only a woman as strong and independent as Margaret Thatcher could set grief aside and tell of the specter of the love of her life to leave in such a frank manner.
While some of my friends thought, maybe correctly, that the focus on an aging, frail Thatcher served to undermine the Iron Lady’s authority or to make her seem more personable, considering her controversial legacy. I thought telling the story from the perspective of Thatcher toward the end of her life made the narrative more interesting than starting from the beginning and continuing straight through. The flashbacks, triggered by hallucinations of Denis or by memorabilia, made the experience disorienting, sometimes staggeringly so. As an American not particularly well-versed in British history from the 1980s, I occasionally felt lost. It took some getting used to, but the feeling worked artfully with the narrative structure of the film, as Thatcher herself struggled with confusion and what Streep called in January’s Vogue a “reconciliation with your life when you come to a point when you’ve lived most of it and it’s behind you.” 4/5 stars
The Iron Lady was written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd. It runs 105 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity.
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