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Margaret Thatcher: a study in singlemindedness and steely nerves

Meghan Thomassen | Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Master of the icy stare, the inclined head and the pensively pursed lips, Meryl Streep astounds viewers even beneath the heavy history and makeup needed to portray former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

“The Iron Lady” begins with Lady Thatcher after her glory days. Sequestered away from the world, the failing woman passes seamlessly from reality to conversation with her dead husband, still jovial despite his death 15 years ago. Streep’s genius really shines through, however, when flashbacks to Lady Thatcher’s prime provide a painful contrast to her current powerlessness.

Headstrong and full of ideals, Margaret Thatcher strode onto the stage of Parliament in 1959 as the only woman in the house. As if being female wasn’t odd enough, Thatcher comes from humble origins as the daughter of a grocer. And a degree from Oxford doesn’t seem to make much of a difference to the men who hold Parliament. But what really separates Thatcher from the sea of suits is her strict adherence to principle. In the film, Streep maintains Thatcher’s keep-no-prisoners attitude as she climbs to the position of Leader of the Conservative Party.

Jim Broadbent plays the home-tied husband, Denis, with a twinkle in his eye, and Olivia Colman embodies the role of Carol Thatcher, the neglected, criticized daughter, perfectly. Carol and her mother’s relationship, however, seems more suited to that of a father and son. Thatcher is visibly disappointed in her daughter’s dissimilitude to her younger, more ambitious self, which makes Carol’s unconditional love for her mother all the more tragic.

Without indulging in the melodramatic, the film emphasizes how Thatcher’s single-mindedness may have won her the seat, but at a great cost. The job reveals a less flattering aspect of Thatcher’s character — her apparent coldness towards her family. Despite his encouragement at the beginning of her career, Denis eventually accuses her of being heartless, shouting, “The children and I can go to hell!” Thatcher’s worst nightmare has come true: Her role as a woman and mother has become an obstacle. Streep artfully exposes Thatcher’s weakness as a wife and mother in small doses, unleashing it finally in a powerful revelation at the conclusion of the film.

The filmmakers rightly took cues from Streep’s strategy of contrast. She raises wizened eyebrows at the rising price of milk, while a young secretary’s hip-hop ringtone violates Lady Thatcher’s sophistication. Her presence in the modern world just feels wrong. In one scene, Thatcher fumbles painfully with the remote control, determined to watch DVDs of happier times with Denis and her twins. The audience enjoys fragments of her past, which are clear and colorful, until viewers are literally jolted back to reality when the camera makes shaky cuts around Lady’s Thatcher’s post-retirement world.

Streep has the audience tumbling between sympathy and frustration. Thatcher’s best quality in politics, her consistency, is a curse for her womanhood. Her steely will prevents her from swapping back and forth effectively between the roles of politician and mother, as so many American women do effortlessly today.

However, Streep’s unapologetic stance persists. Although she leads a sad life at the hands of her handlers, Thatcher does not surrender to emotion or weakness, even in her old age. Inflexible and unforgiving, Streep’s performance evokes a woman with nerves of steel. Even as she begins to lose her grip on reality, Thatcher berates and badgers herself back to sanity, “I will not go mad. I will not go mad.” Margaret Thatcher truly was an Iron Lady, womanly in appearance and steely in nature.

If you’re a lover of all things British and an incurable Meryl Streep fan, such as myself, this film is worth seeing in theaters. But for those of you looking for excellence across the board, or political inspiration, you might want to wait for the DVD. The rise and fall of a leader isn’t a revolutionary plotline, and the filmography seems to take a few too many pages from the books of the BBC.

While some may argue “The Iron Lady” came just in time to finally hand Streep some Oscars Awards, I say to them, “So what?” If she wins, she deserves it. Streep has some stiff competition for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” this year due to the popularity of “The Help” and the fantastic work of Viola Davis.

The film itself is also artfully constructed around the grayness of London, as director Phyllida Lloyd strategically uses light to highlight exhilarating parts of Thatcher’s life, while its absence is used to set the mood for more somber segments, like the dimmed quarters of a Lady Thatcher past her prime. Its high-caliber acting and historical significance makes “The Iron Lady” not just a stage for Streep to strut her stuff, but also a statement about the strengths and weaknesses of the gentler sex. “The Iron Lady” is about a lady who believes in “doing something,” a mantra both Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep embody.