From the moment her name and the subject of her next film were announced, you knew Meryl Streep’s performance as/impersonation of Margaret Thatcher had Oscar written all over it. And true to form, the Academy might as well emboss her name on the statuette now.
It’s an uncanny turn by the screen’s greatest actress, an acting job with towering bombast and marvelous subtlety. She nailed the look, the tone, the speech patterns, the little snap of the head of the imperious British prime minister. Bloody brilliant.
What’s stunning about “The Iron Lady,” though, is what a good film surrounds her performance. Phyllida Lloyd, Streep’s “Mamma Mia!” director, cast this to perfection, putting Streep toe to toe with the A-list of British character players, from Jim Broadbent (as Thatcher’s husband, Denis) to Richard E. Grant, Roger Allam and Anthony Head as her political confidantes. Lloyd finesses a deft script of brisk, quick strokes by Abi Morgan (“Brick Lane,” “Shame”) into terrific entertainment, and a film that both celebrates and – to a far lesser degree – criticizes a woman who inspired a generation of conservatives, at home and in America, to refuse to compromise, to turn every debate into a battle over “principles.”
Morgan’s framing device follows the elderly Lady Margaret, long-retired, losing her sanity in tiny increments. She still chats with and fusses over her long-dead husband, still manages to slip out to the local grocer’s — unrecognized. And at times, she thinks she’s still prime minister. Streep’s mastery of little-old-ladydom is perfect in most every detail, and she maintains it from the first scene, vaguely displeased at a rude businessman who cuts in line in front of her at the convenience mart, to the moment when she, vaguely lost, dodders out of the frame before the closing credits.
Just as Michael Sheen has made it impossible to think no one else could play Tony Blair, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the great Broadbent as Denis — something of a goof, a charmer who can do a deft Chaplin walk and keep his complaining to a minimum, even as their entire family’s lives are upended by Margaret’s political ambitions.
Alexandra Roach is the younger Margaret, a grocer’s daughter who absorbed Dad’s Tory politics during the London Blitz, who learned the hard way how to crack into the boy’s club that was British politics of the 1950s.
“One’s life must matter,” the young Margaret tells her future husband (Harry Lloyd is the young Denis). “I will not be one of those women,” she fumes, laying out ground rules before she’ll accept his proposal. No quiet, shy retiring wife for him. She means to change Britain.
Morgan’s quick-stroke telling of the story amounts to Maggie’s Greatest Hits — her first political victory, her standing up to the establishment in her own party, her party’s victory in 1979, and the riots, IRA bombings and hard times that greeted it. We see Thatcher at war over the Falklands, and bathing in the glory of the end of the Cold War. And we get an earful of her by-your-own-bootstraps economic policy, crushing unions, shuttering British industries and becoming the most hated prime minister ever before the little war gave her and her people a boost in prestige and confidence that turned her political tide.
Streep says a phrase that Thatcher shared with Ronald Reagan, “There you go again,” as if she owns it, and conveys the tactless bullying that characterized her rule, decrying “weak, weak, weak men” who show their political cowardice at every turn, upbraiding friend and foe alike.
But the film is far more of a celebration than an even-handed accounting, not dwelling on her failings. And showing her as a very old woman tends to sentimentalize someone who didn’t allow room for that emotion herself.