‘The Iron Lady’ depicts Margaret Thatcher’s struggles as Britain’s PM

THE MARGARET Thatcher bio "The Iron Lady" is brought to screen by director Phyllida Lloyd and star Meryl Streep, who collaborated on "Mamma Mia."

To me, this conjures an image of Thatcher in a Harrier jet, strafing the two of them on a Greek beach before they can get their singing, dancing, ABBA-loving and probably liberal hands on her conservative legacy (Maggie, as we see in "The Iron Lady," was a Rogers and Hammerstein girl).

Certainly the film has already elicited hatchet job complaints among Thatcherites. The picture arranges itself as a look back, starting with an enfeebled Thatcher (Meryl Streep, eerily pitch perfect) living with memories and apparitions, trying to decide which is which.

When you watch it, though, it doesn't feel demeaning. You see that Lloyd is employing a device as old as "Citizen Kane," framing her story as an aging lion of public life looking in the rear view mirror. In this case the technique is expanded, so the entire movie jumps back and forth between Thatcher's life/career and one doddering day in her London home.

You can also feel Lloyd and Streep trying to understand this character, and if they don't warm to her as a political icon, they do so as another kind of role model - a woman who wanted her life to matter beyond the role of wife, mother, daughter.

"The Iron Lady" is keenly attuned to the small indignities of a woman trying to elbow her way into a man's world. In 1950s Britain, no less, where gender barriers are compounded by class (Thatcher, though played by a Yank, is a quintessentially British creature, wearing blue always, like a piece of human Wedgewood).

A telling scene has Thatcher shouting across the aisle in a heated parliament debate. She and her male Labour opponent are both screaming, but it is Thatcher who must live with the label that she is loud and shrill.

Later, when her rising star attracts the attention of top-level political handlers, they tell her that one thing must absolutely change - her hat. Clothes make the man, ruin the ambitious woman who runs for office. You can feel the movie's admiration for Thatcher as she navigates and manages these challenges.

The other through-line in "The Iron Lady" is that of the bomb - contemporary Thatcher watches the Mumbai bombing with pity and familiarity. In flashbacks she endures the German bombs of World War II, Irish Republican Army bombs that kill her friend, and one that nearly kills her. She orders British soldiers and sailors into harm's way in the Falklands, where hundreds are killed by Argentine missiles.

It's at this point you wonder if the filmmakers realize that Thatcher's life DID matter in a way that transcended gender, that she's won the right to be considered for political ideas and agendas that still divide British today.

Some of these ideas are there, including Thatcher's prescient objections to the euro, which she predicted would leave poorer nations in hock to Germany.

More often, though, we get scenes of an enfeebled Thatcher speaking regretfully to the ghost of her dead husband (Jim Broadbent), a projection (we're to believe) of the guilt she feels at having sacrificed family for career.

That's a role for Mary Tyler Moore, not Meryl Streep, who was less ambivalent about power in "The Devil Wears Prada," running not the whole of England but a fashion magazine.

Still, Lloyd and Streep are not entirely wrong to position Thatcher as an accidental feminist. The Iron Lady was reportedly surprised to learn that she was known to friend and foe as TBW - That Bloody Woman.

That she could be bloody-minded hardly made her unique in politics.

That she was a woman, some people couldn't forget.

The Iron Lady

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. With Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd, Anthony Head, Roger Allam, Nick Dunning, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Julian Wadham, Richard E. Grant, Meryl Streep. Distributed by The Weinstein Co..

Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some violent images and brief nudity).