Taking on Thatcher

Biopic

What do you do after turning yourself into Julia Child, a bold, occasionally bossy woman who changed the way people think about food?

Versatile: Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in ‘The Iron Lady’You turn yourself into Margaret Thatcher, of course. This is what Meryl Streep does in The Iron Lady, which opened recently in New York. In yet another of her miraculous impersonations, she seems even more Thatcher-like than Thatcher herself, so that after the movie if you go back and look at photographs of Thatcher in her prime, you can’t help feeling that they’re a little off.

She no longer looks like herself. When offered the role of Thatcher, Streep didn’t hesitate. “You have to imagine yourself as a 62-year-old actress getting a phone call asking you to play the first female leader in the western world elected on her own merits and not on the coattails of her husband,” she said. “To say, ‘No, I’m not interested’ would just be ridiculous. There is no other opportunity like it.”

Streep researched her part carefully enough to learn even what Thatcher carried in her handbag: 3-by-5 cards with adages by Kipling, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and Disraeli. In the movie, Streep effortlessly imitates Thatcher’s burnished, sometimes strident, declamatory tones, the one novelist Angela Carter once said were reminiscent “not of real toffs but of Wodehouse aunts.”

Phyllida Lloyd, the movie’s director, said, “There’s a Margaret Thatcher voice that British impersonators — men in drag — like to do, and it’s a frightful parody. But nobody has
really gone inside it the way Meryl has.”

But The Iron Lady is not one that follows the career of some exalted personage step by step and ends with him or her in triumph. It’s not even an especially political film. The movie begins in the present, with the Thatcher character old and frail, a little dotty and paranoid, and hallucinating the presence of her dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent). She appears that way for almost half the film, revisiting her great days only in memory, so that The Iron Lady is a movie as much about decline as about a rise to power.

“There have been people who have seen the movie and were fully aghast, who would have liked it to be a triumphalist saga,” Streep said. “Some in our own enterprise here were saying, ‘Why can’t we go out on a high?’” She changed her voice to sound like an old-fashioned movie moghul. “My god, for 40 per cent of the picture she’s an old lady!” She paused for a moment and then changed back to Streep, “That’s the point, you dodo.”

Abi Morgan, who wrote The Iron Lady, said she was initially reluctant to take on the Iron Lady project. There had been at least four made-for-TV Thatcher movies fairly recently, she explained — including the well-regarded Long Walk to Finchley — and she didn’t think she had much to add.

Then she happened to read a magazine article by Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, about the moment she realised that her mother’s memory was beginning to slip, and that gave Morgan the idea of writing about a woman who is starting to fail and at the same time looking back on her life.

Streep added, “What interested me was the part of someone who does monstrous things maybe, or misguided things. Where do they come from? How do a person’s strengths become weaknesses?... I’m a little dogmatic, and that could get really awful over time. If you are self-aware, as actors are, you let these things go into your pores, including criticism. I hate being criticised.”

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