Hiring America’s great lady of the thespian arts, Meryl Streep, to play Britain’s great lady of the political arts, Margaret Thatcher, in The Iron Lady is a stroke of Anglo-American casting genius right up there with enticing Daniel Day-Lewis to play Abraham Lincoln. Really, who better? Streep is her own irresistible show as she assumes, with the precision that is her trademark, the character of the U.K.’s staunchly conservative prime minister in the 1980s. It’s not just the physical transformation she gets right—the familiar helmet hairdo of lacquered waves, the distinctive vocal delivery that Thatcher willed herself to acquire. Streep also nails the comportment. She locates a soul. ? She finds an essence, so that every step ? and gesture reflect the journey of a grocer’s daughter who became one of the most powerful women in the world.
Streep is a pleasure to behold; less so the rest of The Iron Lady. As directed by Phyllida Lloyd (who previously directed the star in the ahistorical Mamma Mia!), the movie is dragged down by its strained dramatic structure, ungainly flashbacks, hedging apolitical stance, and specious analysis of what made/ makes the subject tick. (Thatcher, now 86 years old, is reportedly suffering from Alzheimer’s; how can anyone know what makes her tick?) The patronizing premise — by screenwriter Abi Morgan, who also co-wrote this year’s Shame — keeps a presumptuously pitying focus on the former PM as an addled senior who in her dementia finds comfort in communing with her jolly-fellow of a deceased husband, Denis (a game Jim Broadbent, who also tended to a demented spouse in Iris). As the story lurches from one biographical bullet point to the next — Streep is at her peak as Maggie-the-PM — and then circles back to the frail old lady at home, the effect adds up less to an understanding of Margaret Thatcher than to an appreciation of what really good prosthetics can do in the hands of a world-class pro. B