By Nicholas Wasphott
The views expressed are his own.
When it was announced Meryl Streep was to play Margaret Thatcher in the movie biography “The Iron Lady,” to be released here on December 30 and in Britain a week later, the main topic among politicos and movie buffs was whether the Oscar-winning actress, for all her skills, would do the bossy British prime minister justice. There are no worries on that score. Streep’s impersonation is uncannily accurate. With the help of face padding and voice coaching, Thatcher is portrayed as few have ever seen her. And there lies the problem.
Streep plays Thatcher in her lonely dotage, suffering from crippling dementia, patronized by her carers and her daughter Carol, slipping in and out of a living nightmare where her dead husband Denis appears then disappears before her eyes. In flashbacks she recalls the heady days of her premiership, when she championed the removal of trade union privileges, sold off state assets to reduce the size of government, brought to a temporary end the grip the landed aristocrats held over the Conservative Party leadership, and restored British national pride by retaking by force the distant sheep-ridden Falkland Islands from the Argentines.
But it is the chilling image of a once dominant leader reduced to a fumbling, mumbling old crone that is the movie’s main theme and, while it may pass muster as a sly piece of brutal political theater, as a record of Thatcher and her many achievements, both for good and ill, it is a pitiless, poisonous travesty. Streep has lent her extraordinary acting skills to perhaps the most shameful and cruel piece of political revenge ever to have made it to the screen.
Would Henry Fonda have volunteered his name and faultless reputation to “The Deranged Mr. Lincoln”? Anthony Hopkins dignified Oliver Stone’s somber “Nixon” by trying to get beneath the skin of the paranoid president brought down by his private demons. Even Josh Brolin in Stone’s hilarious “W” made America’s most contentious president in recent times a likeable, surprisingly complex eldest son yearning to show his father he was worthy of winning the White House.
What were the producers of “The Iron Lady” thinking? The money is mostly British, with a little French added, topped off by a deal with the anglophile Harvey Weinstein, and the movie is intended primarily for a British audience. In America, Thatcher retains a great deal of her sheen and is fondly recalled as a plain-talking, energetic, charismatic office wife to Ronald Reagan. In Britain, however, she remains largely a political pariah, a ruthless, heartless, domineering battle-axe whose toxic inheritance left the next three subsequent Conservative leaders unelectable.