When I think of Margaret Thatcher, I think of punk rock. In the 1980s, Thatcher and her American counterpart in conservatism, Ronald Reagan, became convenient dart boards for many a budding teenage anarchist, myself included, though most of us didn't know a trickle-down theory from a poll tax. Thatcher, like Reagan, simply struck us as a type: punitive, parental, firmly opposed to new views and raised voices.
I was hoping that "The Iron Lady," starring Meryl Streep as England's first and only female prime minister, would illuminate this fuzzy figure from my youth. It's certainly another tour de force for Streep, who perfectly nails Thatcher's every idiosyncrasy: the breathy but voluble voice, the steely but spacey gaze. It isn't Streep's fault that "The Iron Lady" ends up feeling so uninvolving and oddly dour.
The movie takes the typical approach, hastily hitting every highlight: the working-class girl, (Alexandra Roach is appealing as the young Margaret), her 1979 election to 10 Downing St., the 1982 Falklands War, the humiliating resignation in 1990. Throughout, we're seeing basically the same Thatcher everyone saw on television: the forceful, unbowing matriarch.
Director Phyllida Lloyd ("Mamma Mia!") and writer Abi Morgan ("Shame") frame the film as a long flashback seen through the bleary eyes of an 80-something Thatcher, now so feebleminded that she's plagued by the hectoring ghost of her late husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). That's a strange version of a man widely remembered as loving and supportive, and an even stranger version of a woman who was famously sharp, spirited and (unbeknownst to most Americans) flirty and even sexy. You'll see little of that person here. "The Iron Lady" is a portrait of Thatcher that my teenage self might have drawn: obvious, oversimplified and, for no apparent reason, unkind.
PLOT The life and times of England's first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher
BOTTOM LINE Another tour de force from Streep, but the movie paints an overly familiar and oddly dour portrait of a vibrant, history-making figure
Streep charmed herself into role
A 2008 memoir by Margaret Thatcher's daughter, Carol, "A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl," helped inspire "The Iron Lady's" partly fictionalized screenplay by Abi Morgan. In 2009, Morgan sent her script to director Phyllida Lloyd, who says she initially worried that casting an American actress might inflame British audiences but picked Meryl Streep for a quality she and the ex-leader shared: "Thatcher was extremely charismatic," Lloyd says. "We needed someone who could match her charm."
Carol Thatcher's book was criticized by her mothers' contemporaries for revealing details of her dementia, a critique that also dogged the film after early screenings for some of Thatcher's inner circle. Capturing a life in its wane, however, was what had interested Streep.
"We've come under fire for trespassing on an old lady's fragility," Streep said. "In England, people say, 'Oh, it's shameful when she can't defend herself.' Defend herself from what? That someone is less of a human being because they've reached the end of their lives? . . . I got very angry when I heard that criticism, that we can't touch this because that should be behind closed doors. No, honestly, that's life."
-- Los Angeles Times