THE IRON LADY. Starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Anthony Head and Richard E Grant. Directed by Phillida Lloyd. Rated M (Mature themes and violence) 105 minutes.
Just as Margaret Thatcher dominated politics in the United Kingdom for over a decade, Meryl Streep dominates The Iron Lady with a performance that ranks as one of the most masterly and compelling in recent cinema history.
Phyllida Lloyd’s confident, focussed direction of Abi Morgan’s imaginative script, begins with an ageing Margaret Thatcher shopping incognito in a London supermarket, with a scarf over her head much like the Queen. Back home boiling eggs for long-dead Dennis (Jim Broadbent), she is chided by her ‘minder’ Susie (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) for having left the house unaccompanied. Captured with kitchen-sink realism, this is Margaret Thatcher in her dotage, a portrait of one of the most formidable women in modern political history slipping unnoticed into senility.
Or is it? London todaygives way suddenly to bright Memory Lane, and amongst flashbacks and archival footage that recreates with great authenticity episodes real and imagined from Thatcher’s triumphant career and her humble origins as a grocer’s daughter (was it Napoleon who in derision called England a ‘nation of shopkeepers’?), this haunting glimpse into Thatcher’s disintegrating memory bank gives largely non-judgemental, sympathetic insight into what made this formidable woman and politician tick.
At the height of Thatcher’s reign, after the Falklands War and Britain’s recovery from recession through her onslaught against the unions and brutal, monetarist policies, there was a joke circling the globe which had Margaret Thatcher and her Ministers dining together. When the waiter asks Thatcher what she would like to eat, she replies, ‘Steak, please’. And when the waiter asks about the vegetables, she replies promptly, ‘They’ll have the same as me’.
This joke comes to lifebrilliantly in a series of snapshots which show Thatcher’s ability once she has ascended to power, to reduce cabinet ministers of the calibre of Geoffrey Howe(Anthony Head) and John Nott (Angus Wright) and Michael Heseltine (Richard E Grant) to dumbstruck, cowed subsidiaries in her schoolmarmish presence. Her hairdo, even in her decline, is as proper and implacable as her belief in the moral and political correctness of all her actions.
But what makes this biopic utterly absorbing is Meryl Streep’s ability to gobeyond mimicry, and capture the mystery of what constitutes any individual’s distinctive character. Streep plays Thatcher from the 1960s onwards, and her physical transformation comes from not only prosthetics (teeth, hair, body-padding as Thatcher ages) but Streep’s astonishing ability to adapt her body movements and vocal chords to look and sound just like her.
Ultimately,the power of Streep’s performance comes from her ability to immerse herself completely in the mind and body of an old woman living in the past, recollecting only what she wants to remember. Every gesture, smile, momentary hesitancy or plucking at her skirt appears real, and from this totally convincing portrait by Streep comes great sympathy if not affection for a woman who during her reign was hated almost as much as she was admired.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 26th December 2011.