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Meryl Streep’s “Iron Lady”: Good as Gold?

December 30, 2011

Is it possible to give a great performance in a terrible film? Meryl Streep tests her mettle—and the audience’s patience—with a frustratingly brilliant turn as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, which may well earn her third statuette at the Oscars. Why so frustrating? Because way too much of the movie takes place late in the first female British prime minister’s life, when she’s doddering about her residence, hallucinating conversations with her long-dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent, equally brilliant and frustrating), and sorting through his belongings. As heartbreakingly good as Streep is at capturing the essence of a woman on the verge of a mental breakdown, those scenes are repetitive and not particularly dramatic.

That reduces the rest of Thatcher’s story to a series of shallow flashbacks, skimming the surface of her Parliamentary career, election as Prime Minister, assassination attempts by the IRA, Falkland Islands war and eventual deposal by a Conservative Party coup. You can’t deny Streep’s work is stirring—she disappears not just beneath layers of makeup but the mannerisms of a proper but steely self-made British woman. And no matter how you feel about Thatcher—I grew up despising her along with her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan (seen here only briefly)—Streep’s incarnation makes a convincing case for Conservatism. Even the audience at the Upper West Side theater—that bastion of liberalism—where I saw it burst into applause after one impassioned speech about the need for even the poorest citizens to pay taxes. The current crop of GOP candidates could learn a move or two from this Lady.

Because so much of the story focuses on the Thatchers’ marriage, every other character aside from Margaret and Denis is given short shrift. Richard E. Grant and Anthony Stewart Head (Buffy‘s Giles!), resourceful actors both, aren’t given enough time to flesh out their roles as political cohorts. It’s ironic that a film written and directed by women—Abi Morgan, who penned the vastly superior BBC series The Hour as well as the sensational sex-addict drama Shame, and Phyllida Lloyd, who directed Streep’s biggest hit, Mamma Mia!—chose to overemphasize Margaret’s relationship with Denis. The movie’s called The Iron Lady—not Iron Man.

Still, Streep and Broadbent shine. As my 10-year-old daughter, Olive, put it on our way out of the theater, “They used the right actors, but in the wrong movie.”

Will you see The Iron Lady? And what’s your favorite Meryl Streep movie?

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