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Less than two months ahead of The Iron Lady‘s U.K. release, Meryl Streep‘s portrayal of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is generating a growing furor among British conservatives bristling at what they consider an unflattering portrayal.
Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) is unfazed by the uproar. “People have been arguing about her [Thatcher] for months and months,” Lloyd tells THR. “She certainly burns brightly as a still very divisive character.”
The movie, made for an estimated $13 million, has been penciled in for a Dec. 30 U.S. release by the Weinstein Co., bowing in exclusive runs in New York and Los Angeles before going wide Jan. 13. It is scheduled to hit U.K. screens Jan. 6 via Pathe’s distribution pact with 20th Century Fox.
Set in the present, the film uses flashbacks to depict Thatcher’s life from 1979 through 1990 and includes her later battles with dementia. (Thatcher, now 86, lives a very private life in London.)
Much of the opposition to the drama comes from Tory stalwarts and former cabinet ministers who served under Thatcher. None has seen the film, but the movie’s trailer — which mixes elements of gentle comedy with scenes of Thatcher’s personal and political life — was enough to set them off.
Former conservative MP Norman Tebbit wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Thatcher was “never, in my experience, the half-hysterical, over-emotional, over-acting woman portrayed by Meryl Streep.”
He also questions why he and others who knew and worked with Thatcher weren’t consulted by the filmmakers. (Abi Morgan‘s script is based on a number of sources, including material from politicians and civil servants on condition of anonymity.) “You might think that if you were setting out to make a so-called ‘biopic’ about such a dominant figure on the political stage of the late 20th century,” Tebbit wrote, “your researchers would have sought out those who were closest to her.”
Tim Bell, one of Thatcher’s key PR advisers, also has taken exception with the film, describing it as a “non-event” and declaring that he has no interest in seeing it.
U.S. conservatives have been equally critical of Iron Lady ever since an early script was leaked. Andrew Breitbart‘s BigHollywood.com complained a year ago that the movie features the ghost of Thatcher’s late husband, Denis, downplaying his wife’s accomplishments, which “would have happened anyway, darling.”
“Not one of those people have seen it,” Lloyd said. “It’s very far from a biopic. You’re only seeing some fragments of her political career and life from how it might have been, not how it was.”
Whether the controversy helps the film at the box office remains to be seen — the furor over Oliver Stone‘s W. sure didn’t do that political drama any favors — but a strong Oscar push is likely given Streep’s perennial awards-season dominance and the backing of Harvey Weinstein.
Streep hasn’t commented directly on the controversy, telling The Daily Mail that while she didn’t agree with many of Thatcher’s policies, it was a privilege to delve deeply into her life and play her onscreen.
Lloyd defends her leading lady, adding that Streep’s performance was never meant to be mean-spirited or exploitative. “Those of us [on set] who witnessed her both as Thatcher in her prime and as the more fragile old lady saw something I have never experienced before,” Lloyd said. “She [Streep] just disappears as an actress and is Thatcher.”
POLITICAL DRAMAS AT THE BOX OFFICE: From JFK to J. Edgar, these biopics about political figures have connected
JFK (1991) Oliver Stone
The grassy knoll conspiracy plot enraged supporters of the one-gunman theory but helped JFK win two Oscars and become a global hit. Stone had less luck with his cinematic character assassinations of Nixon (1995) and George W. Bush. (W., 2008). Global Box Office: $205 million
The Queen (2006) Stephen Frears
Focusing on one of the few controversial moments in Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign, screenwriter Peter Morgan zeroes in on her reserved public response to the death of Princess Diana. Helen Mirren’s classy Queen united royalists, republicans and Oscar voters. Global Box Office: $123.4 million
J. Edgar (2011) Clint Eastwood
Already an Oscar favorite — Leonardo DiCaprio, as Hoover, seems guaranteed a best actor nom — J. Edgar is still rolling out at the box office. Domestic Box Office: $20.7 million (still in release)
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