If "The Iron Lady" had a less vivid performance at its center, it would be easy to dismiss. Phyllida Lloyd's drama about Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of Great Britain, feels oddly thrown together in many ways: Its screenplay, by Abi Morgan ("Shame"), meanders between different time periods in a way that often feels random; its cinematography is distractingly pretty, with a penchant for overhead shots; its story feels unbalanced, focusing more on the former prime minister's declining years than her accomplishments. Scenes of the elderly Thatcher, muddled by dementia and carrying on conversations with her late husband, dominate the film, leaving us wondering exactly what we're supposed to take away from this: sympathy, or a vague sense of retribution -- as if the film is hinting that ambition ultimately drove this woman mad.
But while the rest of "The Iron Lady" fades quickly in memory, Meryl Streep's performance in the title role remains startlingly present. A master of accents and physical detail -- note how her Mrs. Thatcher always, always remembers to neatly cross her ankles -- Streep approaches the role as if she's holding up a mirror. With her hair swirled up in that familiar coronet coiffure, Streep strides through the scenes of Thatcher in her prime with unshaken confidence; the voice making thumping pronouncements in a familiar drone both breathy and deep, as if it comes from somewhere far away.
These scenes are the most interesting parts of the movie but are given short shrift: Thatcher as a young woman -- almost cartoonishly ambitious -- is played by Alexandra Roach for perhaps a quarter of the film, and you find yourself simply feeling sorry for Roach. What young actress wants to put herself into direct comparison with Streep? She's sure to be found wanting, and she is: It's as if Thatcher, in middle age, acquires a wealth of wit and intelligence overnight when Streep takes over the role. (No wonder people are voting for her.) The always wonderful Jim Broadbent, in the role of Denis Thatcher, is also sadly wasted: He's either a comic, buffoonish shell or a ghost, tormenting the elderly Margaret (who's bossy even when speaking to the dead) by disappearing just when she needs him.
Much of the film is Streep, her face softened and drooping by old-age makeup (expertly designed by Marese Langan), wandering through what remains of Thatcher's life, grudgingly submitting to being cared for by her daughter (Olivia Colman). Flashes of her stiff-upper-lip former self occasionally surface. "I do so appreciate your kind concern," she tells a doctor, sitting regally on an exam table as she denies that she's having any problems; substitute a blue business suit for the medical gown and she'd be right back in the halls of power, dismissing any dissent. The iron lady has become a shadow, but Streep lets us see her remaining strength and be moved by it.
Regardless of how you feel about the real Thatcher -- about whose legacy the movie is strangely neutral -- it's a remarkable performance: Streep shows us a light fading but still unflickering.
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