“I MIGHT have preferred iron but bronze will do. It won’t rust!” said Lady Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, when unveiling a statue of herself placed next to that of Sir Winston Churchill.
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Well, maybe next February we’ll all be watching the Academy Awards and you’ll be wondering where lies the prize?
But I won’t be. Hands down, I already decided. Last Monday, I saw one of the greatest films ever, with a performance by Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher that outstrips even the star’s sixteen past nominations and her two Oscar wins. (She won a best supporting statuette for “Kramer vs. Kramer” and then a best actress award for “Sophie’s Choice.”)
What is it about the British; lately they can’t seem to do anything right but when it comes to re-making history into film, there’s nobody better. Last year, “The King’s Speech” rightly took its well-earned bows but as history, freighted with enormous meaning, “The Iron Lady” beats it all to pieces. Yes, the gifted Brits with their all-American star of stars.
Acting, screenwriting, directing, makeup, film editing — you name it. It deserves Oscar after Oscar.
It couldn’t have been easy making this movie.
So many people constitute the young audience and they might know about Princess Di, the Queen of England and the royal wedding. But who among them cares that bringing a female Prime Minister back to life could be so edifying?
It couldn’t have been easy for an actress to play someone some of us remember so well. Someone who has so impressed and influenced our times. (The last time I actually saw Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher she was being escorted up the aisle at the National Cathedral after President Reagan’s funeral! She’d had a stroke but she was still “Somebody!” and she’d been given the highest American honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom.)
And Meryl Streep brings her back here in all her vaunted ambition, her irritation with trivial domestic life, her articulate arguments against all odds, her military patriotism, her staunch conservative beliefs and her not-so-grand political ouster and the onset of uselessness and encroaching old age.
So at first we have the young, somewhat insecure but determined Maggie Roberts who, in World War II, aspires to be something other than the woman in the kitchen. (This youthful role is played by a fine young actress named Alexandra Roach, but even she must be daunted when her character begins to be portrayed by Meryl Streep.) We get all versions of Maggie — young, sexily middle aged, defeated with head held high, growing frail — in her happy courtship and marriage, in her climb into the all-male House of Commons, in her handsome physical makeover. There she is winning elections, facing down misogynistic enemies foreign and domestic, defending the Falkland War by comparing it to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, becoming in office a controlling, imperious, unrelenting high-handed scold and at last, losing her position as Prime Minister.
She also loses her devoted husband, Denis Thatcher, to the cosmos. He is the great, the almost, literally divine actor Jim Broadbent, who here is both comic relief and charm personified. But Maggie becomes old, before our very eyes, she begins to limp,’’ slowing rising from chairs, moving tentatively among the furniture, growing into a feeling of uselessness, savagely protesting to doctors and well-meaning domestic help that she’s all right, offering opinions about disgusting people who have problems with “feelings” instead of simply doing something useful. She turns forgetful and looks for her beloved but irritating Denis. But he has died and there are all his suits, shirts and shoes to be rid of. I have never seen a performer as young as Miss Streep play at the vagaries of growing old, having trouble rising, walking, forgetful and fighting it every step of the way as in this very fine film. But who knows how Meryl Streep, a sheer genius actor, gets into the heads and psyches and make-ups of other people so that she is more real than the subject? In person, Meryl seems normal and down-to-earth — but she has to be a witch to do what she does impersonating a grand assortment of others.
At the screening I saw, producer Harvey Weinstein noted that the British hated this movie from the get-go without even seeing it. He remarked in self-deprecation that he was giving actress Streep a chance. He knew he was a monster; or he was a hero. (I vote for the latter, unequivocally. What would movie-lovers do without Harvey?)
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YOU WILL love Margaret Thatcher submitting to a new hair-do, taking voice lessons and surrendering her hats. You’ll recognize her bowing to advice in order to win, pining over her children who are as disappointing to her as her loyal husband seems at times. You will never forget her in this role; impossibly beautiful, glamourous and chic in parts of it — like where she is dancing with Reagan celebrating the Cold War’s end or departing her high office with tears glimmering behind her eyes and a slight smile..
This film is also a recent, diverting and exciting replay of modern British history — with thrills aplenty from the Nazi blitz to the IRA terrorists to the bombing of #10 Downing Street to the Falklands war. It has suspense even when we know that above all, Maggie Thatcher survived. And she survived to discover that mere survival isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There is plenty of conservative-liberal argument reminding one of today. A distinct sense of loss pervades this film. But even if one did not exactly approve of Mrs. Thatcher as P.M., one has to approve of her guts! She operated from the courage of convictions and no Prime Minister following her has begun to reach her heights.
This is really a great movie. I can’t think of anything released recently or coming on the scene that can stand up to it. And certainly no one will stand up to Meryl Streep’s greatest performance as a beautiful competitor, a winner and loser, who needed to be left alone with her innate timing and grandeur. She is the woman some have called the greatest Prime Minister since Winston Churchill (and the only woman England ever exalted or permitted to rise as PM.)
One little carp. “The Iron Lady” is about 15 minutes too long, toward the end. I’d have liked an extension for more of Maggie’s fight, more of her kicking against the pricks as Shakespeare wrote, more about what exactly she was missing while sidelined. And I’d have liked a little less of Maggie pathetic, confused, muddled and seemingly finished. It’s no secret that the great public washes its hands of its heroes. But Meryl plays Maggie as a real hero, and they should have paid attention.