The Iron Lady (12A)
If I could pick a fault with this stupendous film — a ‘biopic’ of Margaret Thatcher — it would be that it exists too much in a continuum. In other words, the scattiness evinced by the octogenarian Baroness (played stunningly by Meryl Streep) in the early scenes doesn’t change hugely as it progresses. In this sense the film doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere.
It’s narrated by dint of various flashbacks chronicling the seminal events in her political career — her election to power in the Finchley constituency as a grocer’s daughter (Alexandra Roach does an equally excellent turn as the young Thatcher), her battle to have her voice heard among the male politicians who hover around her like so many drones round a queen bee, her smashing of the unions, her intense embrace of the work ethic, the murder of her friend Airey Neave, her privatisation of industry, her atrocious decision to sink the Belgrano ship during the Falklands War — it was moving away from the conflict at the time — and so on.
However, it’s in the depiction of her grief-stricken widowhood after her husband Denis dies that Streep, in what must surely be another Oscar-nominated performance, really comes into her own.
Here we can see the irony in the film’s title. She lets us know very clearly that her brief is to soften the image of the woman once cruelly dubbed ‘Attila the Hen’ because of her recalcitrance.
Jim Broadbent plays Denis in a role perhaps overly reminiscent of his portrayal of Iris Murdoch’s husband in Iris, where Judi Dench (Britain’s answer to Streep?) exhibited similar strains of senility to the ones Streep does here.
The difference is that Streep’s psychological confusion is piecemeal, her trips down memory lane not totally at odds with the world around her as she drifts in and out of the past.
The mistake most actors make playing real-life people is that once they get the face and the voice, they tend to be lazy and let such devices give their performance for them. Not so La Streep.
In every frame she’s trying to capture a new nuance of her subject with a self-satisfied tilt of the head, a flashing of that toothy grin, a wave of the hair, a bewildered frown.
All of which conduce to a mosaic of a woman who, love her or hate her — and emotions seem to run to both extremes rather than stay anywhere in the middle with this lady — was an icon of her time (if not ours).
The fact that she treated Ireland so badly will of course be a sore point for viewers of the film here, particularly since it lets her off the hook on matters like the hunger strike in the Maze prison during the 1980s, which only gets a one-sentence reference.
As against this, the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton — the closest the IRA ever came to killing her — is highlighted.
This skews the balance somewhat. In the aftermath of sinking the Belgrano, she’s so traumatised she writes personal letters of condolence to the widows of all the Argentinians who died in the ship.
It’s difficult to see ‘Attila the Hen’ doing the like by Bobby Sands or his colleagues after she let them die.
This is just one caveat in a truly memorable film which captures the indomitable Tory as a woman dazed and confused in old age as she tries to come to terms with retirement and the modern world.
Streep bears such an uncanny resemblance to Thatcher with make-up (and her own genius) that after a while you forget you’re watching an actress at all. You sit mesmerised as the bewildered ex-prime minister frets and fusses over trivia and a life that has passed her by, leaving only memories like dead leaves in its wake.
Former dictators don’t fare well on the sidelines of power and so it proves here as she tries to recreate the past with Denis, who tells her poignantly as she watches a video of her twins Mark and Carol gambolling on a beach that one can re-wind a tape, or play it over, but never change it or have it back.
In the end, the woman who broached no compromise, who famously said ”I’m extraordinarily patient provided I get my own way in the end” is left floundering in a sea of domestic clutter as a new regime takes over.
Even a die-hard Republican might be coaxed into a tinge of sympathy for her plight … though I doubt it.