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Portrait of an iron lady

This film is a whirlwind tour of one of the most controversial and formidable figures politics has ever seen: Baroness Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), who was not only the first female Prime Minister in the Western world but Britain’s longest-serving elected leader.

The plot begins with Thatcher as a frail woman in her 80s. She confuses past and present so that her dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), becomes a passenger on her journey into the past . The audience is taken back to 1940s post-War Britain, when a young Margaret decides to join the Conservative Party and then traces her political ascension until she becomes the head of government.

Director Phyllida Lloyd treats her steely, icy subject rather sensitively, something that has elicited widespread criticism. Power requires sacrifice and one of the main themes in this film is the personal cost of the fight for power. While Thatcher hones her political career, her family resents her apparent lack of interest in them. In her old age, though, Thatcher is shown as longing for her dead husband and her son Mark, who had moved to South Africa. The only family member she has regular contact with is her daughter Carol, of whom she is dismissive.

The plot, unfortunately, is not as iron-clad as its real-life subject. The flashbacks to Thatcher as a young, determined woman about to enter the nasty world of male-dominated politics, serve to make her more audience-friendly. The scenes of Thatcher as an elderly woman in the clutches of dementia are also designed to draw sympathy from the viewer. Perhaps Lloyd felt she had to be neutral but she takes the Thatcher out of Thatcherism, turning the plot into the weak, watery tea favoured by elderly Brits somewhere in the Cotswolds.

The film does not have a real angle: does it want the audience to condemn or celebrate Thatcher? Is this woman, who fought to quash the unions, a villain? Or, is she the heroine, the one who was courageous enough who did what had to be done? Regardless of your opinion of her, Thatcher was and remains a formidable, seemingly impregnable political icon but it is as if Lloyd is afraid of stepping on any toes, which she inevitably does anyway. Taking a glance at reviews from the UK (where the film has obviously been held up to close scrutiny) it becomes clear that many feel Lloyd was too ‘soft’ on Thatcher.

The Telegraph’s Max Pemberton writes “the movie has played to packed audiences… yet it has also attracted protests and pickets, as well as accusations from those who remain hostile to her premiership that it portrays Lady Thatcher in a forgiving light.” In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw calls it “too benign and celebratory… Meryl Streep has done more for her than any spin-doctor.”

What saves the film in spectacular fashion is the inimitable Streep herself. She won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama for this role last month and has also been nominated for an Academy Award. Streep convincingly and flawlessly captures Thatcher’s mannerisms, facial expressions and, with the help of some excellent voice coaching, her shrill voice.

The audience should not expect insight into any of the big events during Thatcher’s political career. The film skims over these as it tries to pack an entire life into a mere two hours instead of picking out certain events to highlight and tease out. Watch it just for Streep.

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant

Rating: 31/2 out of 5

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