A lot has been made of Phyllida Lloyd's treatment of the life of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher: alternately described as conservative propaganda in disguise or a rose-tinted hagiography of the Iron Lady herself, with some who knew her attacking it as not realistic enough. Well, that's the whole point: The Iron Lady isn't a run-of-the-mill personal biopic or a political biography, rather a feminist viewpoint on the strengths and tenacity of a woman who wouldn't take no for an answer and, almost against her own better expectations, ended up breaking a glass ceiling.

     Framing the film from Thatcher's present-day reclusion as a frail, absent-minded widow still incapable of letting go of her late husband's belongings is the key: it explains The Iron Lady as a time-shifting fantasia, theatrical in style and scope, telescoping everything towards Thatcher's refusal to be just another quiet mother and housewife and her drive to stand up for herself and show that England probably needed a good housewife's touch to get back in shape. By doing so, Ms. Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan sidestep any fraught political issues to focus on the personal and on Thatcher as someone who chose politics and who chose thoughts and ideas: to ask what is the price of power for someone who breaks that many rules, how can you deal with your irrelevance once the work is done.

     It ends up being frightening just how extraordinarily woman-centred the film is, its key scenes highlighting the outsider status of Thatcher within an "old boy"/"gentleman's club" culture of British Politics, her refusal to be seen but not heard, her endurance of the sly condescendence she was awarded, painting a portrait of someone whom you might love or hate but cannot ignore. That, precisely, is why the film disappoints so many people by refusing to conform to the idea of Thatcher as either Tory goddess or Tory nemesis: it's about Thatcher as a woman. Ms. Morgan's script isn't perfect - the telescoping and condensing can sometimes be far too drastic for comfort, and can leave far too much important context outside the frame - but its intuitive approach and Ms. Lloyd's fluid handling of the flashback structure certainly make a compelling case for viewing Thatcher not just as a politician but as a human being.

     Regardless of the script's failings, though, it's fairly obvious that half the film would always rely on whoever would be chosen to portray Thatcher, and Meryl Streep's wondrous performance pretty much wipes away any reluctance the film might create. Hers is an astounding tour de force where the actress fully disappears beneath the character, an uncanny portrayal that is not merely an impersonation but a truly inspired performance that gets under the skin to underline her struggle to remain a woman in a man's world that demanded of her to be either "mummy" (as she herself says in a key scene) or a bully. Even with someone else playing Thatcher, though, The Iron Lady would still be an intriguing film. Maybe just not as gripping.

Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent; Olivia Colman. 
     Director, Phyllida Lloyd; screenplay, Abi Morgan; cinematography, Elliot Davis (colour, digital intermediate and colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen); music, Thomas Newman; production designer, Simon Elliott; costume designer, Consolata Boyle; editor, Justine Wright; producer, Damian Jones (Pathé Productions, Film 4, The UK Film Council, DJ Films in association with Goldcrest Film Productions), UK, 2011, 105 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), January 25th 2012. 


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