When Meryl Streep was 10, she took her mother's eyebrow pencil and drew lines on her face, wrapped a shawl around her head, and made her mother take a picture. It was an attempt to look like, and better understand, her beloved grandmother. As a child, she'd always felt older than her years. She has the photograph to this day.
It is this empathy for elderly women – their secret lost lives and heavy limbs – that fuels her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, the controversial movie about the former British prime minister, which opens in Canada on Friday. Half of the movie is set in the present, with Baroness Thatcher, suffering from dementia, haunted by visions of her late husband Denis. A woman who once had the world as her stage, who was hailed as a warrior and vilified as a dragon who laid waste to her country, is essentially imprisoned by infirmity in her London apartment.
"A biopic made about Margaret Thatcher by a male director might consider other things," says Streep, and she says "biopic" in the way that a vegan might say "hamburger." "We were interested in the old lady.''
The "we" she's referring to are the three women at the heart of the film: Streep herself, director Phyllida Lloyd, and screenwriter Abi Morgan, a trio of feminists who have made a movie about a woman who scorned feminism (more on that later).
It is a movie that perhaps could only have been made by women, because it values the personal equally with the political: The poll tax riots and the miners' strikes are there, but so is Thatcher's strained relationship with her children, and her brisk, fond exasperation with Denis's attempts to cook. It is a sympathetic portrayal of the lioness in winter, and a film that has achieved the remarkable feat – even before opening – of infuriating both Lady Thatcher's friends and foes.
Streep had been looking around for a project that examined "the end of things" when she got the call about The Iron Lady. To look at the 62-year-old actress sitting in a London hotel suite, her face unlined and blonde hair sweeping her shoulders, liberated from the prosthetic buck teeth and tissue of wrinkles that turned her into Thatcher, it's hard to imagine that she's near the end of anything. (If you listen to Hollywood soothsayers, the one thing she's close to is a third Oscar.)
Thatcher's cantankerous old cabinet colleague Norman Tebbit has disdained the performance as "half-hysterical, overemotional, overacting," but he's in a minority. Even the British commentators who didn't like the film – and there are many – admit that Streep's portrayal of the grocer's ambitious daughter is uncanny.
The film's producer, Damian Jones, wanted Streep to play Thatcher as soon as he saw her as the tyrannical magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada. Her friend Phyllida Lloyd, who had directed her so successfully in Mamma Mia!, had a moment's hesitation: "Only," says the director, "because I thought, 'Am I ready to take on two controversies, first Margaret Thatcher and then an American actress playing her?' " The doubt was fleeting. On Christmas Eve, 2010, Lloyd was walking through Selfridges department store when she received a message from Streep: The actress had recorded a famous harangue that Thatcher delivered to interviewer Robin Day. "It was this six-minute, blustery aria, perfectly delivered," says Lloyd. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
For Streep, the prime minister's days as a pugilist in the House of Commons were fascinating, but the real temptation was playing the woman after the spotlight had passed: "I was interested in what it feels like to be her now, facing her humanity," she says. "We all come to the dark corridor at the end of our lives, and we all have to make a reckoning of a sort."
It's this dark corridor that the supporters of Lady Thatcher, now 86, have objected to; they say her dementia is not a fit subject for examination. Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC, "I just can't help wondering, why do we have to have this film right now?" Douglas Hurd, one of her cabinet ministers, called it "ghoulish," while another, Michael Heseltine, found the whole business "distasteful." (This concern for her welfare may be a bit overdue, considering that Heseltine was at the centre of the palace coup that forced Thatcher from office in 1990.)
But Streep, whose parents both had dementia, isn't buying it: "I don't think of it as shameful. It's part of life. If she'd had a problem with her lungs, and I coughed in this portrayal, no one would have raised a stink. But because it's mental, and it's what we most fear, people say we shouldn't do it."
The larger stink surrounds the issue of Thatcher's politics, and how they're either simplified (if you're a fan) or excused (if you're a foe). It's hard to overstate the shadow she still casts over the country, where the effects of her deregulation of the banking sector and privatization of industry are felt to this day. Put it this way: There are people who think she should have a state funeral, and others who plan to hold a party when she dies.
Equally contentious is the framing of The Iron Lady as a story of female empowerment, considering that Margaret Thatcher was about as fond of feminists as she was of Reds and welfare cheats – she only ever appointed one woman to her cabinet, and once said, "What's Women's Lib ever done for me?"
So is it a feminist film? "Well," says Streep with a crafty smile, "it's a film made by feminists." Lloyd, who worked in British non-profit theatre in the 1980s and thus was not exactly a Tory voter, thinks there's "a special venom" reserved for Thatcher because she's a woman, a venom that hasn't been shared among her cabinet colleagues who were, arguably, equally responsible for what happened to Britain. Lloyd has repeatedly said that The Iron Lady is not a political film. "If it is political, it's in putting an old lady on screen, because nobody is doing that."
After the film's premiere in London on Wednesday night, some of Thatcher's political colleagues approached Lloyd and said they approved. Lady Thatcher's children, Mark and Carol, declined an invitation to have the film screened privately. The one person who may never see it is the subject herself, who lives in seclusion in London, not far from the scenes of her great parliamentary triumphs, and is rarely seen in public.