The Iron Lady
Maggie meets Meryl in Iron Lady: Streep approaches camp in portrayal of PM Thatcher
The best way to appreciate the high-ludicrousness of Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher might be to watch “The Iron Lady’’ with the sound down. All the scenes with Streep as prime minister seem like deliberate slow motion. She makes such insinuating eye contact that even to return her gaze leaves you feeling inadequate, judged. With this kind of acting you don’t even need silent-movie titles; her carriage says it all. Everything Streep does here is a seismic act of theater. If she so much as tilts her head, the earth tilts with it. She doesn’t simply overwhelm this thin historic biography - and the other actors around her - she detonates it.
This movie is so conventionally structured and conceived (it goes from Thatcher’s ambitious young adulthood to her greatest political hits) it seems to exist merely to justify the performance. It’s a parade float atop which Streep can pose and impose. Sometimes her showmanship amounts to shamelessness. She wants us to watch her sack another part. Here that invitation is the closest Streep’s come to camp. She dons Thatcher’s mollusk-shell bouffant, which is second only to the first Queen Elizabeth as the strangest red hair in the history of English leadership. She wears the crooked teeth and the pearls. She’s costumed in puce and eggplant and teal. She utters a lot of the famous lines, or versions of them: “The Falkland Islands belong to Britain, and I want them back!’’
Streep’s Thatcher speaks with a poise that’s not unlike the way some divas approach an aria. But when Streep isn’t singing, so to speak, she’s vamping. During the Falklands War in 1982, Alexander Haig (Matthew Marsh) comes to 10 Downing Street for a meeting and his reluctance to engage Argentina exasperates the prime minister. She gives him a speech about how he underestimates her, stands, swivels her head, and asks, “Shall I be mother?’’ She’s referring to whether he’d like her to pour him tea. But she’s not asking as a hostess, she’s asking as a leader. Streep obviously relishes playing a woman this powerful, this unfazed by the chauvinism afoot. She appears to love raising then narrowing her brow and popping her eyes as if she were Bette Davis in a slasher movie. This is good acting. It’s great kabuki.
The director Phyllida Lloyd and the screenwriter Abi Morgan don’t intend to clear the deck for Streep. But what they want to say about Thatcher is blurry. It’s loosely feminist, although that’s a term most feminists would object to seeing used anywhere near Thatcher’s name. But after exclaiming that she doesn’t want to die washing out a teacup, there she is restoring England to its status as a major world power.
Of course, a lot of the film is spent luxuriating in the prime minister’s post-Downing Street dotage. The withering is withered. This version of Thatcher has conversations with her dead husband, an owlish goofball played by Jim Broadbent. So we know Lloyd and Morgan don’t intend to flatter her. But they seem torn about how much to tear Thatcher down or whether to do so at all. There’s a whiff of conspiracy in a few scenes. It’s cheap and secondhand, though, such as when Thatcher inspects the men in her Cabinet, looking for who among them is a press leak, and the camera, operating from her point of view, goes an Oliver Stone kind of haywire.
But Lloyd, who directed Streep in “Mamma Mia!,’’ and Morgan, who co-wrote the recent sex-addiction drama “Shame,’’ aren’t Oliver Stone. They’re not shaking down an icon for something that explains who she was. “The Iron Lady’’ isn’t a psychological odyssey in paranoia. It’s a more dignified, more craven approach to the buffoonery that comedians and commentators apply to the former prime minister. Eventually, the movie puts creaky, old Thatcher on the floor with a glass of Scotch and a pile of DVDs, and you realize it doesn’t have the gumption or the intellectual determination to meet Thatcher on her own terms. They’ve given us a cheap shot about a sad old lady.
The stage from which one can most perceptively assess Thatcher’s legacy or the reach of her conservatism is probably not a film about Thatcher herself. It’s the scores of films made or situated during her decade in office - films like “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,’’ “The Last of England,’’ “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,’’ that dramatized - sometimes with comedy, other times with anger, the polarizing effects of her stubbornness, her patriotism, her passion for the flat tax, and her disdain for social programs and, by extension, the concerns of the lower classes. She helped foment civil unrest and the politics of identity.
Too much of the movie is junked up with the symbolism of her politics. “Move to the right! Move to the right!’’ she says as she teaches her daughter (Olivia Colman) to drive. One disastrous Cabinet meeting culminates in Thatcher’s humiliating her foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head). “Give me your pencil!’’ she screams. A whole movie of this would have made “The Iron Lady’’ Streep’s “Mommie Dearest.’’ But the camp here is far less triumphant. It’s pitiful. Old Lady Thatcher can’t remember the price of milk and talks to a man who isn’t there. Eventually, the movie hits below the belt. We see her at the kitchen sink washing out that cursed teacup. She’s not dead. But she’s close.