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United Kingdom 2011
Directed by
Phyllida Lloyd
105 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Iron Lady

Synopsis: A portrait of Maggie Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister.

There is really only one reason to see The Iron Lady and that is Meryl Streep’s extraordinary, Oscar-winning performance (yes, another one!). I have seen the word mimicry used to describe it but that is unfair. It is true that Streep flawlessly reproduces the mannerisms of the woman we all know from news footage but that Thatcher was very much playing a character, one that we briefly see being manufactured by her PR team. The contrivances are Thatcher’s not Streep’s and brilliant as Streep is at this, we can see the mimicry at work. But it is when she plays the in-retirement Thatcher that her incomparable abilities as an actress are evident. With the help of flawless make-up by J. Roy Helland, she metamorphoses into an aged, vaguely deluded woman in lonely decline who once was someone and is now but a ghost living in the halls of memory.

Is The Iron Lady a vanity project for Streep? On the basis of what we see there are good grounds to think so. The film was directed by Phyllida Lloyd who directed Streep in Mamma Mia! in 2008. It was a huge commercial success but this was more due to Bjorn and Benny’s songwriting skills than anything Lloyd did, which was largely confined to putting Streep in a pair of dungarees and have her jump around like a teenager. One can’t help but feel that it is precisely Lloyd’s self-effacing directorial style that made her the perfect choice for a production which if not outright hagiography (impossible where Thatcher is concerned), presents its subject as the mistress of her own destiny, one who due to her implacable nerve swept all before her and became the most powerful woman in Britain.

In a simplified sense this is an adequate summation of Thatcher’s remarkable story but that is exactly where those who will fault the film will find their ammunition: that is so simplistic in concentrating almost entirely on Thatcher as seen from her own hazy point of view. Social history is presented via archival footage merely as a backdrop to her ineluctable rise and precipitous fall. Political history is given scant attention and political analysis none at all in what is the filmic equivalent of the Baroness singing “My Way”. Only the naive and the party faithful are going to applaud this self-serving valedictory. There will be some who will hoot but most, recognizing that wherever you stand in the political spectrum, she was an achiever (to the horror of the feminists for whom she was the super-woman from Hell), will walk away in respectful silence.

So there you have it. The Iron Lady is more about Meryl than Maggie. As a star turn it's unquestionably impressive, as political history it's all show. As the most divisive period in modern Britisb history, the Thatcher years deserve more than this.




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