The Iron Lady: Thatcher revisited, by Streep

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe in Phyllida Lloyd’s film The Iron Lady. Photo by Alex Bailey, courtesy of Pathe Productions Ltd/ The Weinstein Company

Margaret Thatcher did a great deal for the women’s movement in spite of herself.

As abhorrent as I found her philosophy and policies, she was one of the first women who successfully removed the word “woman” from her descriptor. She was not the female Prime Minister of England; she was, simply (or more to the point, complexly) the Prime Minister of Great Britain, period. Margaret Thatcher was a politician to the bone and after a long hard struggle through the ranks of a hide bound class conscious society, her gender never again entered the picture, although regrettably her social class probably did.

England remains of the most privileged societies in the world. Still a monarchy with an active aristocracy, it is a society not of who you know but into whose family you were born or, in rare instances, who you married. The upper reaches of finance and corporate governance are still ruled by the landed, although occasionally the educational overachievers and the newly very wealthy can find a crack in the wall through which to enter. Politics, especially of the conservative variety, is the pinnacle of such exclusivity, and it was into this exclusive boys’ club that young Margaret Roberts sought to enter. To young Margaret, the grocer’s daughter, politics was about doing not just about being. An early admirer, Denis Thatcher, was a great supporter and when he proposed, he promised to help her achieve her goals to act, to do and to be. And that he did, even later, as the couple raised their twins, Carol and Mark.

Director Phyllida Lloyd opens the film, written by Abi Morgan, in the present day with a physically enfeebled Thatcher (Meryl Streep) seemingly alone in her vast apartment, still living in the familial past. Slightly dotty, Margaret is seen carrying on what appears to be a dialogue about current events and political dilemmas with Denis (Jim Broadbent) and it is these conversations and her refusal to dispose of any of his things that have her staff and daughter quite concerned as Denis has been dead for eight years. In an elegant conceit tied to a mistake in signature, the film rewinds to young Margaret Roberts, daughter of a politically involved small town grocer who, unlike his timid wife, encourages his daughter to be and to do, something that becomes more possible when young Margaret wins a place at Oxford, a university that, at the time, reserved only a very few slots for the intellectually worthy, of which very few women were deemed so. While there, she majored in chemistry, a male-dominated field, and was president of the Student Conservative Association, a harbinger of the future.

Determined to conquer politics, the grocer’s daughter had a rough go of it at the beginning, losing her first election as well as her demand that she be taken seriously by the big boys. That determination would eventually land her in Parliament, in the Cabinet, at the head of her party and as the fifth longest serving Prime Minister in the history of Great Britain (the longest since Robert Banks Jenkinson who served from 1812-1827). It would also see her through terrorist attacks, a war, and an unflinching stand against trade unions as Thatcher was the person who destroyed the coal miners’ union (the subject of both the film and musical “Billy Elliot”). Even if you side with her government on this, she made “carrying coals to Newcastle,” previously unheard of because of a thriving British coal industry, a necessity instead of a fantasy.

Agreement or disagreement, or even an elucidation of her politics seems not to be the point, although this is a major weakness of the film as it is essentially impossible to separate the person from the policy. But for Lloyd and Morgan, it is the journey that is paramount, although they all but ignore one aspect of that journey – the imperiousness that grew as Thatcher gained increasing power, mirroring the attitudes of those who initially excluded her from the club. Tantalizing are the hints of her apparent maternal favoritism toward her son Mark over daughter Carol, who spent a great deal of her time caring for her mother in her dotage. I say tantalizing because unexplored is the elitist adult behavior of her children and the well-documented illegal activities of son Mark, who was convicted in South Africa for his part in fomenting a coup in Equatorial Guinea for material gain, among other things.

Despite the unanswered questions and unexplored domain, this is an interesting film about a ground breaking person who happened to be a woman. Played by the always exceptional Meryl Streep, with a pitch-perfect accent and astonishingly realistic make-up that ages her from middle to old age, Thatcher is given more humanity than she may actually deserve. Equally effective and engaging is Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher. One of the world’s leading character actors, Broadbent is capable of finding the conflict and humor that may have been key characteristics of the man behind the lady. Newcomer Alexandra Roach and rising British television and stage star Harry Lloyd as the young incarnations of Margaret Roberts and Denis Thatcher more than hold their own with their adult counterparts. Be on the lookout also for the fabulous Nicholas Farrell as Airey Neave, an early political supporter and mastermind behind Thatcher’s physical remake; Richard E. Grant as Michael Haseltine, a duplicitous political “ally;” and the always good and extremely versatile Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe, a long time Minister who played a key, but unintended role in her undoing.

Opening Friday December 30 at the Hollywood ArcLight and the Landmark Theatre.

Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film.

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