By Jenny Peters
As Meryl Streep’s latest acting triumph, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” picks up awards season steam, there’s also a bit of controversy surrounding the biopic, particularly in Britain. For Thatcher, who is still alive at age 86, has been suffering from dementia (according to a memoir penned by her daughter, Carol) for the last ten years. It is that condition that frames Phyllida Lloyd’s film, as we see Thatcher as an old woman, whose mental state wavers in and out of a consciousness of her current reality.
It’s a framing device that allows Lloyd and Streep to move from Thatcher’s present into her past, as memories swirl in her head as she packs up her late husband’s clothing and prepares for a commemoration ceremony at 10 Downing Street. We see her as a young girl, fired up with a desire to enter politics by her father; as a young woman falling in love with her husband, Denis; as a rising star in Parliament; and finally, as the first and only female prime minister of Britain, wielding power for 11 years, from 1979 to 1990.
The controversy among Thatcher’s friends and supporters is in the film’s portrayal of her dementia; news reports quote them as being upset that she is shown in that light.
But Steep, who moves effortlessly through Thatcher’s middle years and into her twilight days, insists that showing her failing mental health is an important part of her story.
“We have come under criticism for portraying a person who is frail and in delicate health. Some people have said that it’s shameful to portray this part of a life,” Streep said at a recent New York press conference in support of the movie. “But the corollary thought to that is if you think that debility, delicacy, dementia is shameful, if you think that the ebbing end of life is something that should be shut away, if you think that people need to be defended from those images, then yes, if you think it’s a shameful thing. But I don’t think that.”
Instead, the 62-year-old actress believes that “The Iron Lady” is a testament to Thatcher’s accomplishments, as well as an exploration of how our lives change as we age.
“What we were wanting from this piece was that it was going to be not a docudrama, not a chronicling of Margaret Thatcher’s political life, but that it would be a very particular look back, through her own eyes, at selected memories, not in chronological order. It was in a jumble of memory, regret, glory days, that it would all be a part of a reckoning at the end,” she explained. “It’s an imagined journey that we are taking.”
And a close-up look at a woman who changed history. “I’m in awe of all the things that were arrayed against her succeeding, her getting to the top of her party and then to lead the country and to be the longest serving prime minister in the twentieth century. The array of obstacles that stood before her in England at that time were enormous,” Streep said. “Even though you might not agree with the politics, you have to admire her determination, her stamina, her courage to take it on.”
Photos courtesy The Weinstein Company.