Rating: 4 stars out of 5
If you’re an old fogey – meaning, someone who still remembers how people used to work like c**p for a living – you’ll dig this film.
But if you’re a young loafer –the sort of punk whom Margaret Thatcher totally and utterly (her fave utterances) abhorred in her days as a very tough leader – you’ll probably want to watch “The Iron Lady” to basically find out why Meryl Streep is going to nail the Oscar for Best Actress.
You know, I was at the Judas Priest concert at Fort Canning on Monday night. The lead singer, Rob Halford, a 60-year-old Brit heavy-metal rocker old enough to protest in ditch-the-b***h songs against Thatcher’s conservative Britain in the 1980s, mentioned those angry times onstage and called Thatcher derogatorily, a “wanker”.
Lots of folks, you see, were pi**ed at the no-nonsense prime minister back then. Especially defanged British trade unionists and defeated Argentine generals she ruthlessly pummelled in her hey day.
But Streep, a Yank, plays the wank so sympathetically, you might even wish to adopt her. That’s actually quite ironic because the Iron Lady in her prime was as uncompromising and as unsympathetic as steel on tofu.
In the movie, this is captured starkly as she seems like a fussy schoolteacher humiliating her cabinet – she chews out one senior underling for spelling mistakes in front of embarrassed ministers – and orders her navy to fire torpedoes at an Argentine ship moving away from the conflict zone in the Falklands War.
“Sink it,” she barks coldheartedly, sending hundreds of Argentinian sailors to their deaths.
Here’s the deal – Streep’s performance is remarkable not so much in that she makes a perfect impersonation of PM Thatcher. It’s more about her making an even better and more spot-on impersonation of PMS Thatcher.
To clarify, that’s post-mental-syndrome Thatcher because half of the flick shows her to be ingloriously senile as she recalls past glories. This motif of back-and-forth propels the story equally well for those who know the 1980s and those who don’t.
Man, the way Streep’s Thatcher, under layers of old-woman makeup, waddles about in absent-minded dementia in her home, being unable to distinguish between past and present while talking to her imaginary, already-dead jolly companion-husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), is tour-de-force portrayal of a very extinguished force.
Now, the controversy surrounding “The Iron Lady” is that it’s considered cruel to examine a person in dementia while she’s still living, breathing and forgetting among us. The poor woman clearly is in no physical position to defend herself to unmerciful charges submitted in the film.
Actually, the guardians of her legacy needn’t worry too much because the film puts Thatcher in not so much a bad light, but an understanding one.
From her early formation as a budding neophyte-traditionalist (played in effective flashback by Alexandra Roach) to her proto-feminist determination in barging into the all-boys network in parliament to her stint as supreme ruler of the roost, her no-backing-down attitude comes down to one unwavering dictum.
As a grocer’s daughter and then Oxford grad, she subscribes to a stubborn inborn belief of not getting or giving any free lunch anyhow, anywhere to anyone except in exchange for sheer hard work.
“Tomorrow, no matter what they do, it’s business as usual,” her strict dad instructs the young Margaret firmly as they take cover defiantly from German bombs during World War II.
Here, the movie, in a one-track coverage of such a famously one-track character as Thatcher, submits to rigorous stereo-typing. If you’ve heard of the shrill battler with the handbag shouting down sexist adversaries in parliamentary debates, it’s depicted here.
By the way, that angle does lend itself to a very funny scene where she is coached to tone down her high-pitched voice and to ditch her ghastly cheap pearls (“They are absolutely non-negotiable,” she counters in her legendary no-surrender tone).
If you know of the abject contempt she reserved for retreaters, bullies and colleagues she deemed as cowards, it’s shown here too in spades as if she’s an unstoppable train derailing the weaknesses of a hopelessly timid male-dominated world.
Thatcher, the film proposes, had admiration for and empathy with only two men – her working-class father and her crazy-class husband who’s the jokey, clownish foil to her rigid bloody mindedness.
You don’t know if this is true, but the latter is a one-man vaudeville act who soothes her ruffled feathers.
In these two sides of work and play, we get a great glimpse of Thatcher winning and then wilting at the seams, and as portrayed by the imperious Streep in big Maggie hair and bigger Maggie air, the grand tale is an almost tragic story of powerless private loss alongside powerful public gain.
“When did I lose track of everyone?” the aged, deposed Thatcher asks poignantly in unfamiliar dotage.
“The Iron Lady”, it seems, is simply The Ironic Lady.