I was sick of hearing about how good Meryl Streep is as Margaret Thatcher the moment it was announced she was going to play Margaret Thatcher. But here’s the thing: she happens to be really good in the movie.
Streep is an awards magnet, but that’s something apart from her actual talent. In The Iron Lady – a stately, well-appointed British biopic engineered to magnetize awards – Streep once again shows the range and precision that has made her such an honored actress. Witnessed in a vacuum, free of the adulation that has more to do with Streep’s reputation than the film, her performance is a pleasure to watch.
It’s not just that we buy Streep as Thatcher in old age, which is when the movie begins. It’s what Streep does while wearing the convincing aging makeup (it makes the work in J. Edgar look even clammier). The early portion of the movie, in particular, is about how the former Prime Minister of England deals with a body that is failing and a mind that is slowly slipping away. Streep communicates that experience – the dismay, the anger, the fiery determination to keep fogginess at bay – with flashing eyes and a defiant voice. The steely politician who stared down opponents while in office is now facing a new foe: her own mortality.
For awhile, it seems as if The Iron Lady is going to be something interesting and rare: an exploration of the realities of aging, especially for someone who lived a life of authority and power. Especially in the scenes with Jim Broadbent, who plays Thatcher’s late husband and emerges from her hazy memories to live in the present like a garrulous ghost, the movie is a tender consideration of those inevitable side effects of a long life: loss and grief.
But then, alas, we’re thrust into a standard biopic. And so the flashbacks pile up, news clips unspool and we proceed to tick off the major public events in Thatcher’s life. It’s all of faint interest, and not nearly as galvanizing as the scene of Streep’s Thatcher in a diplomatic standoff with her doctor. It really is a grand performance, albeit trapped in a middling film.