A Nation of Shopkeepers' Daughter
Her singing, dancing and comedic abilities overshadowed in comparison, Meryl Streep is arguably the finest pure actress in America. Her performance as The Iron Lady adds to that queenly status.
Some carped about overacting in this Phyllida Lloyd fictionalized biopic written by Abi Morgan, but such dramatic flair for word and gesture were Margaret Thatcher’s (Streep) stock-in-trade even if coached in by advisers and an elocution teacher (Christopher Luscombe). The first-ever woman elected head of government in the West is still alive, so there is a usual end-disclaimer. But the story is not political, though most will see it as such, with some taking exception to the lady’s conservative policies. The result is far superior to plain The Lady, an upcoming look at a different state’s leader also backed by a self-effacing husband.
What with elections and campaigns, Parliament and infighting, civil disturbances and terrorist bombs, strikes and a war of national prestige, few will see what it truly is. The tight hundred-five minutes is a story of love’s informing the seldom-explored struggle for personal dignity and freedom in the face of ageing and conventional “wisdom” about seniors. There is nothing “wrong” with her, Baroness Thatcher tells a doctor (Michael Maloney).
Nor is it feminist tract. One cringes at the girls’ snobbery endured by grocer’s (Iain Glen) daughter Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach) but also at her own later tactless regal hauteur that alienates those who would be loyal. If there is applause due her ignoring the Old Boy sniggers of upper-class entitlement, her personality wants to be respected more than loved. The brief rubbing elbows with the common man -- donning a campaign-trail hardhat or dispensing frozen custard -- are not the heart of the woman who insisted on being “intimidating, not much point being a weak floppy thing in a chair.” 10 Downing Street staff tears and roses at her departure are not warranted by what we see.
During her years as MP, Secretary of State for Education and Science and three-time prime minister, her image waxed and waned with economic and social tides and her fiscal austerity and intransigence on national integrity. Streep instinctively does not attempt any petit bourgeois Oxford-educated accent over those three decades and now, only modulating the early strident high pitch.
The film is non-judgmental in that everything is its central character’s point of view. And it is “now,” as the aged combative retiree fusses against help from caregivers and half-accepts the concern of twin daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) as bravely as the disappointment that son Mark cannot afford to visit from South Africa.
The price of milk astonishes her, but at eighty-six after small strokes she does not admit the gaps in her grasp of the present. However, the past is clear and taking increasing hold, so the film blends today with returns into a yesterday that seems more real. The bridge is husband Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent, with Harry Lloyd as the younger man), dead these eight years after fifty-two of marriage but alive in memory, humorous and speaking truth to his widow.
A British graffito advocated “Free Denis,” a James Bond movie poked light fun at that apron’d husband, and in her mind Maggie still mothers and bosses “DT.” His reappearances are triggered Proust-like by physical objects like his clothing that needs finally to be discarded. The past called up reveals his loving embrace of an unheralded rôle, the couple’s disagreements being over the small things of all relationships.
A barefooted Denis’ final words remind Maggie that “you’re on your own, you always have been.” In an earlier past scene, she had left for Whitehall as the child twins (Eloise Webb, Alexander Beardsley) ran after the car to fade in the rear window. The lady believes she has done right with her life. Having few or no regrets is not the same, nevertheless, as not wishing to grasp again what is done and gone.
Mistakenly the political legacy will attract more comment than the Thatchers’ compatibility. But though really secondary to the film, the policies are no less controversial today than then. Too, dire straits for nations and their middle and lower classes have not changed much, either, while the Falklands are again contested.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “PG-13” for some violent images and brief nudity.)