It is impossible to talk about the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady without discussing Meryl Streep’s tour de force performance and her sure shot at an Oscar nomination. Our lady of alchemic transformations, Streep’s Thatcher has the endearing overbite, imperial air, froth of helmet hair, and fighting spirit of Britain’s most famous post-Churchill politician down pat. Her impersonation is nothing short of witchcraft.
British director Phyllida Lloyd, who worked with Streep on Mamma Mia!, takes an interesting, occasionally misguided track in their new collaboration, documenting Thatcher’s life in reverse. She begins circa 2009 or thereabouts with the decline. Thatcher is long out of her prime minister office, but convinced in her dotage that her beloved — but dead — husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) is still alive and living with her in their London flat. In a world where we are more likely to see the reverse, it is a refreshing change to witness the man behind the woman. Lloyd’s approach instantly endows Thatcher’s tale with an aura of regret, sadness, and empathy. No matter what your political bent, it is a tragic thing to see a once formidable woman now hunched and delusional. The tactic democratizes Thatcher and brings her down to a human level as she copes with old age and the diminishment of her mental faculties.
Lloyd’s take on Thatcher’s early life is also fascinating. The daughter of a conservative grocer and local politician who subscribed to an up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy, young Margaret is a daddy’s girl who lives by his example. Flashbacks picture Maggie (Alexandra Roach) as a milky maiden with a defiant spirit. She emerges from a family so bourgeois and budget-minded that she runs back to cover the butter during a WWII blitzkrieg. Her father’s daughter, Maggie is more apt to identify with his shopkeeper’s ambition than the housewifey nonentity represented by her mum. It’s an internalized sexism that Thatcher appears to retain her whole life. In the present day scenes, Thatcher is cruel and dismissive of her poor daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), seeing her as another emblem of feminine weakness, even as she rushes obediently to her elderly mother’s side.
Lloyd obviously doesn’t shy away from Thatcher’s flaws. She is often presented as strident, intolerant, and, like so many humble people turned powerful, self-satisfied and unforgiving in her conviction that everyone is capable of such transformation. In flashbacks, as Thatcher’s political ambitions grow from the first female parliament member to party leader and then prime minister, she seems oblivious or just unconcerned about the toll her career takes on her family. As much as Charlize Theron in Young Adult, Streep’s Thatcher is a woman who gets at the contradictions in feminine behavior and ambition.
But not all of Lloyd’s choices are good ones. She has a tendency to go for melodrama when sticking to the details of Thatcher’s life might be more effective. The focus on the Iron Supplement Lady and her combative relationship with her hologramish husband is probably too long and too much for the movie to bear. The emphasis on her private life (as it is imagined) will undoubtedly rub many the wrong way for crowding out the historical details of Thatcher’s life. The director’s approach is at times almost cartoonish, even campy. Thatcher isn’t dead yet, but this interpretation of her golden years may make her wish she was.
And yet, there is poignancy in Lloyd’s method too, and a defiance of the usual dramatic build of most bio pictures where it is always onward and upward. Some will see too much liberty taken with the Iron Lady’s life. Perhaps — but then, every biography is essentially a writer or a filmmaker’s hypothesis, a fiction laced with part truth and plenty of artistic license. Lloyd does a sort of balancing act herself, paying homage to the realities of the Commie-fighting hellcat that made Thatcher so celebrated among conservatives on both sides of the pond, while also suggesting that she was a female heroine for the very fact of her ambition and achievements. As she tells her young beau Denis (Harry Lloyd) when he proposes marriage, “One’s life must matter, Denis … I cannot die washing up a tea cup.” By the end, the Iron Lady has managed to play a part in toppling the Berlin Wall — while washing up a tea cup or two.