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As The Iron Lady opens, an elderly woman shuffles into the local market. Pushed aside by a self-important businessman and an oblivious youth, she expresses confused surprise at the price of milk. No one recognizes that she is the former co-leader of the free world and bane of dictators, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
It's a poignant moment as the grocer's daughter assesses her country's economic health the same way she did while in office: by keeping track of the price of a pint of milk.
This pathos is the great strength and great weakness of the film (rated PG-13 for violent images of riots and a fleeting but explicit shot of female nudity). Thatcher, played brilliantly by Meryl Streep, is portrayed in her dotage, with flashbacks to her career. Throughout the film, she sees and talks to her beloved deceased husband (Jim Broadbent). Her confusion and loneliness conflict with determination and intelligence to create a portrait of a woman still true to her convictions, although unsure about the details. The portrayal humanizes rather than demeans, while creating more than one lump in the throat.
The film dedicates significant time to Thatcher's economic beliefs. When she took office, the country literally stank under piles of uncollected garbage as strikes crippled the economy. With characteristic resolve, Thatcher refused to negotiate with unions and eventually succeeded in implementing conservative policy. The film allows Thatcher to express her own beliefs in her own words without passing judgment. The result is some of the most rousing and convincing conservative economic proclamations heard at the theater for years.
While the film also covers IRA terror bombings, England's war over the Falkland Islands, Thatcher's thorny relationships with her children, and her ultimate downfall due to her refusal to work well with her own party, it shockingly glosses over the Cold War. A biopic of Thatcher without the Cold War is like examining Steve Jobs without Apple. The omission amounts to a failure of courage on the part of the filmmakers.
The Iron Lady is a tremendously good movie in what it includes, but one that is sadly incomplete.