January 04, 2012

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep

The Iron Lady offers a kaleidoscope of Thatcher’s memories stretching back to the Blitz, when Margaret Roberts was a grocer’s daughter. If you wonder why Britain’s BBC caste still hates Thatcher so virulently, consider her pride in her “nation of shopkeeper” roots. Thatcher’s contemporary, physicist/wise man Freeman Dyson explained:

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class.…I learned to look on the commercial middle class with loathing and contempt. Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher, which was also the revenge of the commercial middle class. The academics lost their power and prestige and the business people took over. The academics never forgave Thatcher….

But don’t expect anything that insightful in Morgan’s script.

In the scenes of her plucky 1950 run for Parliament at age 24, Thatcher is played by the young actress Alexandra Roach as buck-toothed and plain. This fails to convey the head-turning impact the fresh-faced Miss Roberts had on Englishmen at the time, as later attested by admirers such as Alec Guinness, David Lean, and Kingsley Amis. This photo captures some of her English Rose appeal, but it’s still hard for contemporary Americans to factor in how worn most other Englishwomen looked in 1950 after a decade of rationing.

Cinematically, the best shot in The Iron Lady is of Thatcher’s first day in the House of Commons in 1959: a long ankle-level pan past all the MPs excitedly tapping their wingtip shoes, fired up for debate, to a lone nervous pair of pumps. The movie slightly exaggerates how few women were in Parliament before Mrs. Thatcher, but it vividly communicates how intimidating it could be for a woman to face the masculine energy in the “crowded House”—which for centuries symbolized male competition at its not-quite-violent best.

Streep, America’s greatest living practitioner of the acting arts, unsurprisingly nails Thatcher’s accent, including her mid-career switch from soprano to alto to sound more authoritative. The Iron Lady will no doubt bring the admirable Streep her 17th Oscar nomination to go along with her four children, one husband, and zero rehabs.



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