Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in ‘The Iron Lady’ is ‘phenomenal’

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The superb new movie, “The Iron Lady,” which stars Meryl Streep as the (in?) famous former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is about a lot of things.

That said, one thing it isn’t especially about is Mrs. Thatcher’s famously (in?) conservative politics. Yes, her decisions — on everything from taxes to the Falklands to IRA hunger strikes — are part of who she is. Remember, she may have danced with Ronald Reagan, but Elvis Costello wished he could dance on her grave (harsh…).

Still, much as “King Lear” isn’t really about an aging king’s viewpoint on a multitude of issues as much as it is about loss of power and growing old alone, “The Iron Lady” cares more about the private woman than the public persona.

Again, not that the two don’t overlap.

I’ve read as many reviews that condemn the film for sweetening Thatcher as I have ones protesting she’s been unbecomingly neutered. I guess we all have our Own Private Iron Lady (as the Soviets dubbed her); my gut view of her is — big surprise – generally negative.

However, “The Iron Lady,” at heart, is a kind of character study — of Thatcher, yes, but also of the British culture that simultaneously embraced and demonized her. For her gender, of course, but also for her middle-class status as a grocer’s daughter.

A matronly figurehead like Queen Elizabeth ll is fine. At least her bloodlines are top-notch and what, really, does it matter what she thinks — unless she’s not nice to the memory of Princess Diana.

But a woman from a “questionable” background who actually has power? It just isn’t done.

Like “J. Edger” — albeit far more successfully — “The Iron Lady” time-warps among different versions of Thatcher. For a good portion of the movie, she is elderly, perhaps somewhat demented (like her pal Reagan, she is said to suffer from Alzheimer’s). In fact, when she first appears, Streep’s incarnation is so extraordinary I didn’t even recognize her — as Thatcher or Streep.

We also see her in her twenties, eager and borderline-plain, but someone who knows the value of butter firsthand. She’s also aware — firsthand — of the stinging snobbery inherent in the English class system.

Worse, she’s a girl: as in, “ladies, please retire” while the men drink cognac, smoke cigars and discuss matters of importance well beyond, well, the price of butter.

Phyllida Lloyd, who earlier guided Streep in the laughably dismal “Mamma Mia,” seems to have found her Inner Director. Or, perhaps, as so rarely happens, the right material has converged with the right actor at the right time.

Certainly, Thatcher’s rise and eventual (inevitable?) fall from power as the first and only female Prime Minister of Great Britain (as well as the longest serving) is a movie in itself.

However, “The Iron Lady seeks something more complex, more human. At its core, the film can be viewed as a love story — between Thatcher and her devoted, protective husband (Jim Broadbent, who deserves at least a best supporting nomination).

As for Streep, she’s taken this material and run with it like Tim Tebow with a Hail Mary pass. I don’t know how she knows to set her lips in a particular manner or how she chooses when to allow an arm to shake with age and when not.

Whatever it is, it’s totally organic and — I’m running out of superlatives here —she is flat-out phenomenal. My friend Susan R., who works for my excellent accountant Steve K., said she thought Streep had been so good in so many things that “She’s unbelievable.”

That’s how she is in “The Iron Lady.” Unbelievable. And absolutely believable.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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