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Felice Arenas

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The Iron Lady Director on Criticism: 'Gird Your Loins'

Posted: 12/26/11 04:36 PM ET

It seems The Iron Lady director Phyllida Lloyd might have taken notes from fellow Brit Margaret Thatcher when it comes to facing her critics.

At a Los Angeles screening of Lady, which stars Meryl Streep and is based on the first and only female U.K. prime minister, Lloyd shared her thoughts with me about maintaining confidence while receiving early negative reviews for her latest project.

"Just gird your loins and know that [the film] transcends people's preconceptions," she said.

Most of the tomato hurlers, such as former conservative Member of Parliament Norman Tebbit, hadn't even seen the movie but were quick to assess its slant and Streep's highly anticipated presentation, which has already been nominated for and garnered several awards, including a 2011 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. She'll certainly receive her 17th Academy Award nomination for the role.

In November, 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."

Mamma Mia!, which also starred Streep, was Lloyd's previous (and first) feature film after she directed the ABBA musical in London's West End and on Broadway. Its 2008 release saw worldwide profits reach more than half a billion dollars -- and it never got swiped at with sharp critical claws. But Lloyd has decidedly found humor in the fact that Lady can't and won't please everybody.

"We bring our own worlds and ourselves to art and when we come to see things. For my niece, this is a movie about female empowerment. It's about a lone woman in a sea of men and what her parents and grandparents lived through," she said. "To my generation... I have friends who have said to me, 'You're putting me in a very difficult position. I've saved up to have the party on the day she dies, how am I going to deal with this? I don't want to see it,' or, you know, 'Get over yourself.' Whatever."

She went on to say that she knew far in advance that a movie centered on the conservative Thatcher would hoist hackles.

"I think I knew a year ago, when I started, very foolishly, looking on the IMDb website for the film and saw people start to go, 'Oh, well, obviously... it's made by a bunch of lefties,'" she explained. "'I mean, there's Meryl, then that other outlaw, Phyllida; they're all left. It's gonna tear her up and rip her down,' and then people coming back and saying, 'no, Hollywood's involved here. It's going to be a total whitewash job.' Then they started tearing each other to pieces about Margaret Thatcher and her policies, and soon the film's left way behind in the discussion."

Streep told the Daily Mail that her own personal politics didn't factor into her performance.

"I still don't agree with a lot of her policies, but I feel she believed in them and that they came from an honest conviction," she said.

The film's title comes from Thatcher's nickname, which the Soviet Union gave her in 1976 in reference to her opposition to communism. Audiences watch her journey to live up to it, starting in mid-1940s Grantham, England, where Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach) watches her father, Alfred (Iain Glen), who owns a grocery and is mayor, fire up locals with a protreptic about individual responsibility and business principles in government. His fervor seeps into her just as she heads to Oxford.

For the era, it's rare if not considered preposterous for a woman to covet a government post, but it turns on a young, affable Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd), who proposes marriage.

In 1950, she throws her later-criticized blue hat into the political ring (she rarely dons anything but blue). After turning into Mrs. Thatcher (Streep) and having twins Carol and Mark, she works her way to become prime minister in 1979, the same year the Irish National Liberation Army kills Airey Neave (Nicholas Farrell), her confidant and one of the first men to believe in her political aspirations.

Prior to resigning in 1990, she makes enemies out of labor organizations, squares off with Argentina during the Falklands War in 1982, and finds herself and Denis nearly blown to smidiríní in 1984 when the Provisional Irish Republican Army bombs their hotel in Brighton.

Thatcher's implacable approach to work and life invites contention, and in later years, Denis (Jim Broadbent), who does deeply love his wife, pecks at her lack of attention to him and her children; one scene finds her resolute and ostensibly unaffected as she pulls away in her car from a crying young Carol (Eloise Webb).

While Lady has bursts of energy in flashbacks as it explores a cool Thatcher's power grab and accentuates what a feat it is, given the swells of testosterone in which she wades and the japes she blinks off with sangfroid, it imparts a specific melancholy when depicting her days post prime minister and in old age. It's not easy to watch someone's mighty life end up in mundanity and confusion. It's handled, however, with respectful ministration.

Oftentimes blank-faced or conversing with the ghost of Denis, a pobby Thatcher wanders about in the fuzz that only dementia can swirl with cruel indiscrimination, but with Streep never veering into hapless, hopeless, or hysterical, harried territory, the awkward discomfort that comes from knowing Thatcher is still alive is eased.

Moviegoers experience what's akin to something of a miracle and not unlike a sort of trick: from one eye's wince and a crease that unfolds down to her neck while attempting to understand a grown Carol (Olivia Colman), to catching a toe on a rug and the brief skip that only an old person tries to recover from with another small skip, to, in younger years, pursing doughty lips while listening to disputatious peers, to revealing pleasure after the unveiling of her makeover in a mirror, Streep is Maggie. She doesn't just offer up her voice and mannerisms; she possesses her mental circuitry, and that's what makes her delivery genius.

When I asked Lloyd about the experience of working with Streep a second time, she said she felt "lucky."

"Her investment in a project is so total and her sphere of interest in it is so wide, it starts way before the shoot," she said. "There is a passion and an excitement and an openness, support. I've learned so much from her, and it's not just about acting."

Lloyd, like Thatcher, knows the value of having the right people on her team.

The Iron Lady opens nationwide Friday, Dec. 30.