‘The Iron Lady’ shows Thatcher still divides Brits

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LONDON (AP) - With hairdo, handbag and hubris, she dominated _ and divided _ Britain for a decade. Now a film about Margaret Thatcher is doing it all over again.

“The Iron Lady” stars Meryl Streep as Britain’s first female prime minister, whose neo-Victorian values and free-market ideology helped transform a battered post-imperial country into an economically dynamic but industrially depleted and increasingly unequal society.

But it’s the film’s focus on the personal, rather than the political, that has made Thatcher’s enemies apprehensive and her allies unhappy.

“The Iron Lady” depicts Thatcher, now 86, as a frail, elderly figure with dementia, holding imaginary conversations with her dead husband Denis (a genial Jim Broadbent) as she looks back on her life as a double outsider _ both a woman and a lowly grocer’s daughter in a male-dominated, patrician Conservative Party.

Streep’s eerily evocative, pitch-perfect performance looks likely to earn her a 17th Academy Award nomination and possibly a third acting Oscar. But the intimacy of the movie’s portrait has led some Conservatives to accuse it of being disrespectful, distasteful, even faintly idolatrous. One lawmaker has demanded a parliamentary debate, telling the House of Commons he was disturbed by the film.

“I just wonder why the filmmakers had to go so heavily on the mental illness, the dementia side, when Baroness Thatcher has had a very important life in the politics of this country and the world,” said Conservative legislator Rob Wilson.

“It left me wondering about the humanity of the filmmakers who are very subtly denigrating someone who was a great prime minister.”

Thatcher rarely appears in public these days, and her inner circle releases little information about her health. But her daughter Carol _ sympathetically portrayed in the film by Olivia Colman _ wrote about her mother’s dementia in a 2008 book.

Conservative grandee Norman Tebbit, a government minister under Thatcher, also criticized the film, saying the former prime minister was nothing like the “half-hysterical, overemotional, overacting woman portrayed by Meryl Streep” _ though he admitted he was basing that judgment on the movie’s trailer.

The film’s director rejects the criticisms, but says she’s not surprised by them.

“Those two words _ Margaret Thatcher _ are provocative in this country,” said Phyllida Lloyd, a Briton who also directed Streep in the frothy Abba musical “Mamma Mia!”

“She still has the ability to set people on one another. People think of her either as St. Margaret who saved the nation, or the she-devil who ruined the lives of millions and bred a culture of greed.”

Both sides may find their conceptions challenged by the film, which opens in Australia and New Zealand on Monday, in the U.S. Dec. 30 and in Britain on Jan. 6.

“The left wing are nervous about being asked to feel compassion for someone they think they are supposed to hate,” Lloyd said. “But all we are doing is making her human.

“And the right are questioning whether there is something shameful about putting her on the screen with this frailty. But that’s if you feel frailty is shameful _ and we don’t.”

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