Steely Streep steals show as ‘Meryl’ Thatcher
From the first frame there’s a growing awareness that our perceptions of this woman are being gently and skilfully manipulated by director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan, so much so that regardless of your political persuasion you’d have to be resolutely stubborn or emotionally retarded in failing to be moved by this biopic. We are presented with a frail but determined elderly woman who admirably struggles on a daily basis with the fragile balance between her reality and the emotional episodes of her remembered life. Her late beloved husband remains very alive to her and she pines for her son, who now lives estranged in South Africa. In short, she is not recognisable as the woman once referred to by Soviet Captain Yuri Gavrilov as the Iron Lady.
The danger in eliciting our sympathies in this way is that the inarguably inspirational drama of one woman who triumphs in a world beset by male code, will colour our perceptions of history with such a subjective retelling. The film attempts a token objectivity but frustratingly there’s little commitment to exploring her at times out-of-touch policy making, her narrow mindedness, or the untold woes she caused for working families throughout the country. While there is some disturbing footage of police brutality during the miner’s strikes and the mass casualties of Thatcher’s Falklands War, they are presented quite separately from the Iron Lady herself. We see her removed, lamenting these occurrences like others, via radio or television. With the Falklands conflict resolved, we then see a triumphant Thatcher at the peak of her popularity. There’s a sense throughout that the ends justified her means while glossing over everything in between. A short montage depicts her gaily waltzing with Mandela, but I could only think of Thatcher’s branding of Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist” during his struggle against apartheid – of which there is no mention. Such omissions are not surprising, but they are a little disappointing, if only for the reason that Streep’s central performance deserves a better film.
One might say that mimicry, although requiring great skill, is more technique than artistry. Unless coupled with some other-worldly brilliance it can appear an elaborate parlour trick. Michael Sheen has built his entire career on this type of work (partly due to a lack of imaginative casting), playing in three films – Tony Blair in The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship – followed by David Frost (Frost vs Nixon) and later Brian Clough (The Damned United). Such roles are magnets for awards buzz. Streep herself is no stranger to the practice, having played Danish writer Karen Blixen (Out of Africa).
These examples, though excellent, pale in comparison to Streep as Thatcher. It is gratifying to see any art practiced by such a rare talent in their field. Streep is bewitching, spellbinding – such adjectives flow to mind because without any of the modern wizardry we now associate with ‘film magic’, we witness an illusion at once utterly convincing and yet as old as the art itself. Streep is skin-creepingly good because she enthuses the character with invisible detail, body and soul, so that you never question the creation you are watching. It is a supremely physical performance; Streep, herself now 62, depicts Thatcher at several points in her life from mid-40s to 80s (the actress playing Thatcher in her 20s lacks Streep’s subtlety) and ensures the physical nuances are as skilfully interpreted as psychological ones. Margaret Thatcher is full blooded; she lives and breathes before your eyes. This film belongs entirely to Streep.
The Iron Lady
Dir: Phyllida Lloyd;
UK/France Drama 2012, 105 mins;
Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Richard E Grant
Premiered February 23