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Edelstein: The Iron Lady Makes a Case for the Human Being Beneath Thatcher’s Mask

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

The Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady is shallow but satisfying, largely because of Meryl Streep and her big fake English teeth and gift for using mimicry as a means of achieving empathy. Streep plays Thatcher as a woman armored for battle, a female in a male chauvinist’s world and a Tory in a quasi-socialist one. The lacquered hair is meant to signal strength, the pearls a pride in the fruits of wealth. Her philosophy of free enterprise comes from her shop-owner father, who preached self-reliance over welfare and argued that business was “the lifeblood of any community.” But her spirit — already manifest, in flashbacks, in her youthful self (Alexandra Roach) — is all her own. She doesn’t like being directed to sit with the ladies while the men move into the drawing room to smoke their cigars. She won’t be told what she can’t do.

The director, Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!), and writer, Abi Morgan (Shame), clearly admire her feminism (not that Thatcher would use that word!) but are studiously neutral on the nature of her politics — which is bound to goad those Tory-minded viewers who’d like to see Thatcher’s ideas celebrated along with the force of her will. Not bloody likely. My hunch is that the filmmakers’ political views are closer to those of Elvis Costello (who famously told Thatcher in song that, “ … when they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp — the — dirt — down”) than Ronald Reagan. But Lloyd and Morgan begin the film with a Thatcher rendered powerless by age and illness, a little old lady wandering out of her house past her minders and unrecognized at a local convenience store, her dirt tramped down by time. In the spirit of The Queen, they are making the case for the human being beneath the mask.

The Iron Lady drifts back and forth between Thatcher as an old woman moving in and out of fantasy and her rise to power — graduating from Oxford, marrying Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd in youth, Jim Broadbent in old age and beyond), and gradually becoming the face of the Conservative Party and then Prime Minister. Streep’s old-age makeup is uncanny, and cinematographer Elliot Davis knows how to light it. (Compare this to poor Armie Hammer, who, in the later scenes of J. Edgar, looks like a burn victim.) But it’s Streep who pulls off the makeup, who shows the disoriented Thatcher clinging to the trappings of her old persona. It’s easy to understand the anger in Britain over what has been labeled an invasion of privacy, although the aged Thatcher’s immediate impulse to release a statement after a terrorist attack “offering our condolences” struck me as more admirable than pathetic. The movie says she has a sense of civic duty to the end. And her fantasy scenes with Broadbent’s Denis, long deceased, are heartbreaking. Denis was a figure of fun in the U.K., dotty and harmless beside his commanding wife. But here you see the sweet-tempered clown who took off her edge and made her laugh.

Viewers will have to make up their own minds about this Thatcher after Argentina’s failing junta, desperate to remain in power, seizes the Falkland Islands. (“Sink it! There will be no appeasement!”) But it’s hard not to love Streep when her Thatcher talks tough. As always, Streep the impersonator reproduces the music in her subject’s voice and through it the workings of a mind: Here, at the peak of Thatcher’s power, that voice is a nasal trumpet rich in metal and mettle. (Streep is at her best when she locates the inner performer in the people she plays.) In the later scenes, in which Thatcher quarrels with Michael Heseltine (Richard E. Grant) and others over how to cope with economic crisis, the film was harder — at least for this Yank — to follow. There’s no doubt, however, that the filmmakers finally view Thatcher as a woman with an inflexible and somewhat limited intellect. The imperviousness to criticism that brought her to power also leads to her downfall.

I can’t speak for the Brits, but on this side of the pond Thatcher’s public admirers are a sorry lot, from Mitt Romney, who mindlessly stole the famous “Labour Isn’t Working” poster (it was lame), to Sarah Palin, who launched a campaign to secure a photo-op with the ex-prime minister, allegedly in an advanced stage of dementia (which might, come to think of it, be the best state in which to receive Palin). But the Thatcher of The Iron Lady does prove to be an excellent role model in one respect. She campaigns on “thoughts and ideas, not feelings.” She says, “Ask me what I’m thinking.” To American ears inured in this election year to all manner of appeals to our worst instincts, those are strange — but inspirational — words, indeed.

Photo: Pathe Productions