REPORTING FROM LONDON -- British alarm at the idea of an American actor playing Margaret Thatcher, the country's first female prime minister, has been largely laid to rest by early reviews of Meryl Streep’s performance in "The Iron Lady."
Loathed and loved by generations of Britons, the hard-line Thatcher held office for three terms, from 1979 to 1990, and is the only premier whose name has christened an era. "Thatcherism" is known as the time when Conservative government policies worked fiercely against state ownership, labor unions and social services, favoring instead privatization and a free market economy independent of European Union control.
Since then, Thatcher has been through myriad screen and stage portrayals as supporting or cameo roles by British actors. In this first big-screen biopic, Streep outclasses those previous efforts, say film critics from both right- and left-wing newspapers.
“Meryl's Maggie in her prime is a towering, ultra-confident woman who makes men shrink.... The current crop of male politicians will shrink by comparison,” writes Grant Rollings in the Sun tabloid.
“A 17th Oscar nomination is a dead cert for this great actress,” the Sun says.
“It’s a performance of towering proportions that sets a new benchmark for acting, a searing interpretation that looks at the big forces that shaped Mrs T’s life,” says Baz Bamigboye in the right-wing Daily Mail.
The film covers Thatcher from childhood in her parents' grocery store to leader of a country, a woman who battled labor unions, went to war over the Falkland Islands and etched social divisions through Britain that are still felt today.
Critics who viewed a sneak preview of the film -- the movie opens on British screens Jan. 6 -- say Streep's portrayal is a success.
“Her performance is astonishing and all but flawless,” says Xan Brooks in the leftist Guardian. Yet he has little respect for the actual film, calling it "silly and suspect."
But Brooks says Streep captures Thatcher in “a masterpiece of mimicry.... Streep has the basilisk stare; the tilted, faintly predatory posture ... the demure solicitude, invariably overtaken by steely, wild-eyed stridency.”
Thatcher's political colleagues are less star-struck, but Times columnist Matthew Parris, who was Thatcher's correspondence secretary when he served as a Tory MP, says Streep’s approach to the role has Thatcherite conviction.
Streep “grasps and projects one great central truth about Thatcher. With her, it was in for a penny, in for a pound,” he says.
And she has captured the commanding voice, “the declamatory quality of much of Thatcher’s speech,” he says. Thatcher couldn’t order cheese on toast “without appearing to make a pronouncement,” he remembers.
Not everyone is a fan, however. Norman Tebbit, a former Thatcher minister, grumbles in the Daily Telegraph that his former boss “was never, in my experience, the half-hysterical, over-emotional, over-acting woman portrayed by Meryl Streep."
However, he concedes that Thatcher "could be angry."
"On at least one occasion, I walked back to my department unsure whether I would find on my arrival that I was no longer the secretary of state,” he said.
-- Janet Stobart
Photo: Meryl Streep unveils a poster for her new film, "The Iron Lady," opposite the Houses of Parliament in London on Nov 14. Credit: Luke MacGregor / Reuters