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The Iron Lady: movie review

Thatcher biopic 'The Iron Lady' is a sprawling review of the British prime minister's life that may leave supporters and detractors unsatisfied.

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Interspersing these modern-day scenes director Phyllida Lloyd, who last worked with Streep on the ga-ga “Mamma Mia!,” rolls out Thatcher’s life in boringly chronological fashion. We see young Margaret (well played by Alexandra Roach) as a grocer’s daughter who attends Oxford, enters Parliament in 1959, and successfully challenges Edward Heath (John Sessions) for leadership of the Conservative Party. Occasional newsreel clips punctuate the action, which encompasses a vast flurry of Thatcher’s greatest hits: the financial deregulations and privatizations, the attacks on trade unions, the miners’ strike of 1983, the poll tax riots of 1990, the Falklands escapade. Just to show that it wasn’t all bad times, there is also a brief, obligatory shot of her dancing at a state function with Ronald Reagan.

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Possibly Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan intended all this turmoil as an implicit criticism of Thatcherism. Or maybe, because of the indomitable way in which Thatcher is portrayed, they positioned it as a backhanded justification of her policies. Who knows? Cameron McCracken, one of the film’s corporate presenters, has said: “Our challenge is to let people know that it's not a political film … absolutely not a forensic examination of Thatcherism. It’s a portrait of a woman coming to terms with her loss of power and identity, which is a universal story.”

It may indeed be a universal story, but Thatcher was very much a singular individual with a large historical footprint. Attempting to portray her as an extraordinary ordinary human being, as opposed to a prime minister, doesn’t work when the person and the politician are as entwined as they are here. Since neither the psychological nor the political portraiture cuts very deep, we’re left with a movie that probably won’t do much of anything for either Thatcher idolators or haters. (The people who have no opinion about her one way or the other will probably be the most bored.)

Perhaps sensing this failure at the root of the film’s conception – which reduces Thatcher to a dotty lioness in winter in thrall to her dead husband’s image –Streep occasionally brings a welcome loopiness to her performance. It’s as if she decided to toss the baggage she’s been saddled with and have a good time. Who can blame her?

It’s possible to make a movie about a controversial political figure and have all the warring political factions, for different reasons, embrace it. The classic example of this is “Patton,” which was both beloved by liberals and Richard Nixon’s favorite movie. But this sort of thing is only possible when the movie gives us ample ammunition. “The Iron Lady” is too bland to be controversial, too antiquated to speak to the present. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity.)

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