Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is being greeted with superlatives, so much so that the movie is now the most anticipated offering of the New Year and critics are describing Streep as a shoo-in for best female actor at the 2012 Academy Awards. The performance has been variously described as “astonishing” and “uncanny” in capturing the hauteur, vulnerability and, yes, sex appeal of the most important British prime minister of the 20th century after Winston Churchill.
Equally astonishing is that the left-leaning Streep -who famously bagged George Bush during one of her many Oscar podium appearances – has evidently eschewed the temptation to play Thatcher as a heartless caricature, the right-wing monster vilified by the chattering classes for smashing the unions and upending the welfare state. The film was screened to British critics for the first time overnight and by some accounts, even certain left wing campaigners from the Thatcher years were reduced to tears. Why? Because this was a story not just about an often reviled politician but an ordinary woman who transformed a nation and the prospects of women everywhere with an extraordinary demonstration of zeal and conviction. It’s the personal story that is evidently so affecting. And Streep is so convincing – voice, hair, posture, movement, everything -that the audience comes to see her as the real Margaret Thatcher, in all her epic strengths and foibles.
As London is plastered with movie posters of Streep as Thatcher in advance of the local opening on January 6th, the political right can scarcely believe what critics like Baz Bamigboye in the Daily Mail are saying; no, it’s not a left-wing hatchet job and yes, it captures the Iron Lady in all her magnificence, a remarkable biopic that will reinforce her image around the world, not detract from it. Thatcher’s children, Carol and Mark, were especially concerned about the effect of the movie on the Thatcher legacy. And even yesterday, her staunchest supporters were accusing Meryl Streep of “cashing in on Mrs Thatcher’s success”, in apparent anticipation of an axe that, in the event, simply didn’t fall.
So why did this left-wing icon of an actress play Britain’s modern day Boadicea so sympathetically? As Streep tells it, much as she disliked some of the policies of Thatcherism, she came to strongly admire the woman herself. And a lot of that admiration stemmed from the fact that Thatcher was both a woman of ambition and a politician of conviction, who didn’t continually test the political winds and passionately believed in herself and her mission to put the Great into Britain again. Both Streep and the critics are making the point that audiences are likely to be struck by the comparison between the Iron Lady and latter day political leaders who don’t do anything without the imprimatur of a focus group.
It’s no surprise, then, that some left-leaning newspapers and columnists in Britain – who were keenly anticipating their own views being reinforced by the film – have gone on the attack. This piece in that bible of the left – The Guardian – praises Streep’s performance but cans the movie itself, predictably accusing it of glossing over the worst excesses of Thatcherism and the division it caused in British society. The review blithely ignores that for the lady herself, this was the whole point. Her move against the cushy consensus of 1970s Britain wasn’t so much a campaign as a crusade. She wore the division with pride because it was a necessary precursor to her own brand of revolution – turning the country from a collectivist, union dominated welfare state into an enterprise orientated, property- owning democracy in which individuals and the family were the only society worth having.
At 86, Mrs Thatcher, the woman, is fading into the sunset of her own life. She’s occasionally still seen in public but is unable to speak after a series of strokes and is said to have trouble remembering people and events. How she will eventually be judged is for history to decide yet there’s no doubt that she’s been one of the towering figures of our own age, not least for teaming up with Ronald Reagan to destroy the Soviet empire. It was the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who dubbed her the Iron Lady and the name of this movie guarantees that’s how she’ll always be remembered. Thanks to the brilliant Meryl Streep, actress and subject have both achieved the one thing guaranteed to fire the public imagination way beyond political extinction – screen immortality.