Winner of the best actor 2012 Golden Globe for her stunning performance in “The Iron Lady”, Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, the iconic Prime Minister second only to Winston Churchill in power and impact on Great Britain. “The Iron Lady” is, at times, an exceptional meditation on old age and it is, once more, a virtuoso performance by the genius that is Meryl Streep.
First and foremost, however, “The Iron Lady” is a portrait of Thatcher as a woman whose tremendous sacrifices to family and identity were viewed, both by her and by her advisors, as necessary in order to become the first woman prime minister of Great Britain. Zooming in on the floor in the House of Parliament, the shot captures it all: a solitary pair of high-heel shoes among rows of Oxford wing-tips.
The opening scene lingers on a very elderly Thatcher (mid-eighties), struggling with dementia, as she talks to her husband Denis (the never-disappointing Jim Broadbent). Denis has been dead for about five years. But the ex-Prime Minister’s husband appears throughout the film as a hallucination in the frail psyche of the aging woman.
Margaret Thatcher’s story is told in flashbacks that take us back to her adolescence and young adulthood (played believably by Alexandra Roach). In one noteworthy scene, the young Margaret tells her parents with barely contained excitement, that she has been accepted into Oxford University. The camera cuts away to her mother, who continues to wash dishes in silence. Much later in the film, the elderly Margaret repeats the same dishwashing in a scene with her own daughter, who yearns for validation from her. Scenes with a plate of butter, which appear several times, also convey an analogy–its importance as a special treat in her youth as a grocer’s daughter, to the accepted presence on the breakfast table at 10 Downing Street. Flashbacks to her own childhood and that of her own parenting underscore the disconnect to her own children, especially her daughter.
Meryl Streep never disappoints in cloning the character she inhabits. She is not merely imitating Thatcher, but rather channeling her physicality– right down to her speech, which is transformed from her natural pitch to a more “masculine” and “authoritative one”. Chameleon-like in facial expression and body language, Streep mesmerizes with the slightest-of-slightest hand and body tremors, the shifts in posture and gait to reflect the passage of time. Extraordinary makeup never distracts, except to astonish by making Streep almost unrecognizable. Watch the way she moves and, if you remember seeing Margaret Thatcher on television, you’ll swear you’re seeing her as she walks along. Streep perfects this every time (as many of us remember with her uncanny portrait of Julia Child). Her award-winning performance is achingly honest in its understanding and interpretation of Thatcher’s powerful intellect, motivations, even perhaps her unconscious.