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Formatting memory

OUT NOW! Meryl Streep's Oscar winning performance in THE IRON LADY lends at least a little sympathy to one of the most historically hated women in Britain.

Flashbacks have been around almost as long as celluloid. For nearly 100 years (the first example is generally considered to be D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance), they’ve provided information on earlier chapters of character and plot not otherwise accessible within a progressive narrative structure. Frequently considered disruptive, the device is roundly rejected by naturalist filmmakers.

But some films cannot do without. And if these films succeed, it’s often because the flashback is used not merely as a source of additional material but to comment and reflect upon states of mind outside the present-day narrative, in particular, as a cinematographic metaphor for memory.

The Iron Lady is a case in point. Playing Margaret Thatcher under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, an astounding Meryl Streep travels back and forth via flashback from an increasingly demented present to the remembered clarity of seminal moments: the young Margaret (Alexandra Roach) in thrall to her father’s ‘can do’ postwar economics, the perceived triumphs of her later career as she takes on the trade unions or Conservative elders or Argentina.

At her side since 1949, Denis (an irrepressible Jim Broadbent) appears as a long-suffering husband consigned to the role of houseman whilst his wife indulges her political obsessions.

Following his death and the onset of her own mental frailty, she finds that he is still part of her confused days – hanging around the house, doing the crossword, or fixing her a whisky. She knows that his presence is a sign of sickness, a trick of her memory, a function of guilt. She knows it, and so do we because it’s all there, in flashbacks during which friend and foe rise up, random and unbidden, reminding her of what she did and asking why.

A small price, one might argue, compared to the price her policies exacted from Britain’s industry or its trade unions. Seen in individual terms, and these are clearly those of the director, it is indeed a high price to pay.

the Iron Lady | Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (UK, France 2011) with Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent. Starts March 1.