In interviews, star Meryl Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) have joked that “The Iron Lady,” their film about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is the girl version of “King Lear.”
It’s not a bad comparison. Not that anyone will confuse “Iron Lady,” essentially a TV movie blessed with a brilliant and deeply felt performance by Streep, with “Lear.”
The movie may lack the eloquence and depth of William Shakespeare’s drama about an aging king heading into madness, but it certainly conveys that the passing years spare no one, even the once mighty, from having to confront their own failings and frailties.
“Iron Lady” isn’t strictly a biopic. Rather than show us the chronological rise and battles of England’s first (and only) female prime minister, the movie opens with an elderly Thatcher (Streep) living in cosseted retirement. Her memory is spotty and she regularly converses with an apparition of her dead husband, businessman Dennis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent).
The movie then toggles back and forth between this elderly Thatcher and her memories of her younger self. (In real life, Baroness Thatcher, now 86, is affected by memory loss following a series of strokes and is rarely seen in public.)
Born Margaret Roberts, she was daughter of a grocery store owner. Her small businessman father, whom she worshipped, preached the virtues of self-reliance and seizing opportunity, a conservative doctrine she absorbed as her own.
Her early years — graduating from Oxford, marrying Dennis, giving birth to a son and daughter — are sketched in rapidly and then the fun begins in 1959 when Thatcher is elected to Parliament. (Alexandra Roach plays the young Thatcher and Harry Lloyd the young Dennis.) Despite frequent encounters with sexism and class prejudice (amusingly depicted in the film), she rises through the ranks of her party and is elected Prime Minister in 1979, vowing to help England “shake off the shackles of socialism.”
Her vigorous shaking, which included massive cuts to social programs, a tough anti-union stance and the Falklands War, made her a lightning rod figure. There are many in England for whom, to this day, she is still referred to not by name but rather, in scathing tones, as “that bloody woman.”
The movie touches on all this, but its real interest lies in uncovering what made this grocer’s daughter tick, to believe that she could govern a nation and go where no woman had gone before. It shows her toughness and inflexibility (especially with members of her own party during her PM years), her love for her husband and yet her single-minded devotion to politics, and her emotional blind spots (her unreliable son).
What binds the film together is Streep. In portraying a middle-aged and an elderly Thatcher, she is astonishingly accurate in mimicking the look, voice, gait and mannerisms of her real life character. If that was all there was to the performance, it would merely be a top-notch impersonation.
But this being Streep, there’s so much more. Just as she did when waving around a chicken carcass as Julia Child, she brings enormous humor to the part. There’s a glint in her eye much of the time, a willingness to have Thatcher be both in on the joke and the object of the joke.
More than anything, Streep’s Thatcher is always aware that she moves in a world of men and that they, poor chauvinistic saps, are constantly underestimating her — to their eventual regret. No matter your politics, she makes you see Thatcher as a real person rather than a caricature.