From the moment her name and the subject of her next film were announced, you knew Meryl Streep's performance as and impersonation of Margaret Thatcher had Oscar written all over it. And it's true: The Academy might as well emboss her name on the statuette now.
Her work in The Iron Lady is an uncanny turn by the screen's greatest actress, an acting job with towering bombast and marvelous subtlety. She has nailed the look, tone, speech patterns, the little snap of the head of the imperious British prime minister. Bloody brilliant.
What's stunning about The Iron Lady 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, including Jim Broadbent, as Thatcher's husband, Denis, and 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 a 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 — unrecognized. And at times, she thinks she's still prime minister. Streep's mastery of little-old-ladydom is perfect in almost 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.
And just as Michael Sheen has made it impossible to think of anyone else who could play Tony Blair, it's hard to i magine 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 of World War II, who learned the hard way how to crack into the boy's club of 1950s British politics.
"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 her failure. And showing her as a very old woman tends to sentimentalize someone who didn't allow room for that emotion herself.
Talentless conservative filmmakers put so much effort into making Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged into an epic creative and commercial failure last year. If only they'd known that those notorious liberals, the Weinsteins, were going to burnish this paragon of conservatism for The Iron Lady, they might not have bothered. Streep's performance of a dismissive line like "People don't think anymore; they feel," will have even the most dyed-in-the-wool liberal questioning core beliefs.
But it's not a political speech that will ultimately matter. It's an Academy Award acceptance one, and Streep, so very good every time she steps before the camera, had better start polishing hers now. They're already polishing her Oscar.