- - Friday, January 13, 2012

Shortly before ending her presidential campaign, Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose last-ditch TV ads likened her to Margaret Thatcher, told The Washington Times she was “very excited” to see “The Iron Lady,” the controversial biopic starring Meryl Streep as the former British prime minister.

A major film about a cherished right-wing political icon worthy of such hopes from an American conservative leader? Fat chance, right?

Well, believe it or not, “The Iron Lady,” flaws and all, largely vindicates such seemingly naive hopes.

Framing Mrs. Thatcher’s story as a series of flashbacks from her contemporary life, the film depicts the once-commanding leader in the midst of senility, contrasting it with her historic rise through the ranks of Britain’s Conservative Party to the post of prime minister.

Like Ronald Reagan on our side of the pond, Mrs. Thatcher remains a polarizing figure, worshipped by the right and reviled by the left. Here, her fight against left-wing orthodoxy is depicted as ferocious and honorable, with minimal time devoted to criticisms. One could be forgiven for guessing the filmmakers themselves were conservatives, if one didn’t know better.

Much is made on-screen of Mrs. Thatcher’s smashing of the glass ceiling that kept British politics a virtual boy’s club. Her anomalous place in a phallocentric milieu is milked for some surprising — and pointed — humor, such as a shot of her bright blue suit swimming in a sea of dark men’s jackets, or her discovery that the lady’s lounge in Parliament is equipped with an ironing board.

From her early days as an aspiring politician (played with a sense of youthful steeliness and determination by Thatcher near-ringer Alexandra Roach) to her ultimate ouster by her own party, there’s nary another woman in sight, a fact competently conveyed and used to bolster our sympathies for this remarkable individual.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Miss Streep’s “Mama Mia!” director), “Iron Lady” devotes considerable time to Mrs. Thatcher’s contemporary dementia, with its recurring hallucinations — alternately comforting and tormenting — of her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). It almost becomes in effect two separate films, one confronting the tragic decline of an elderly widow, the other charting the meteoric rise and fall of a powerful politician.

Only scant efforts are made to connect the film’s two story arcs. Inevitably, Mrs. Thatcher’s later years are inherently less dramatic — notwithstanding Miss Streep and Mr. Broadbent’s moving performances — than the eventful times of her political prime. Scenes depicting her battles with unions and conduct of the Falklands War play well, despite a greatest hits feeling necessitated by the limited time.

In the title role, Miss Streep satisfies the three A’s required for an Academy Award: accent, affliction and appearance. She’s a virtual lock for another Oscar nomination, which will bring her total to 17, with a not improbable third win on top of that.

That Miss Lloyd, working with a script by Abi Morgan, has made a film that has been praised and jeered by politicos left and right is almost astounding, considering the near-complete dearth of sympathetic portrayals of right-leaning figures.

Miss Streep has acknowledged having some less than warm feelings for Mrs. Thatcher’s policies. But you’d never know it from her performance, a transformation into cinematic iconography which ensures that for many the name “Thatcher” will now conjure images of Miss Streep’s flawless embodiment.

★ ★ ★ (out of four)

TITLE: “The Iron Lady”

CREDITS: Directed by Phyllida Lloyd; screenplay by Abi Morgan

RATING: PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

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