Can we just go ahead and agree that it is time to anoint Meryl Streep as the world’s greatest living actress? We could have the ceremony on some Alpine mountaintop where she would be allowed to sacrifice a publicist on the altar of artistic integrity.
With apologies to the Judi Dench’s, Helen Mirren’s, and Kate Winslet’s of the world, Streep has been crushing performances so routinely this past decade that we’ve started taking her for granted. In spite of almost yearly nominations, her last Oscar win was in 1983!
Perhaps this is the year Hollywood will set things right for her powerful turn in “The Iron Lady,” as she effortlessly portrays Great Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
It is easy to dismiss biopics like this as shameless Oscar-bait, because with a little makeup and an accent change, Streep becomes a dead ringer for the former Conservative Party leader.
But instead of simply phoning in a wax-museum performance and calling it a day, Streep brings depth and nuance to a still-controversial figure.
The movie begins in the present day with Streep portraying an elderly Thatcher who is battling the early stages of dementia. The story unfolds as she begins reflecting on her life and career through conversations with her deceased husband, Denis (the ever-charming Jim Broadbent).
While Streep hands off the role of Thatcher in her youngest days to another actress (Alexandra Roach), she is still able to guide us through many stages of this remarkable woman’s lifelong evolution.
When Thatcher first bursts onto the political scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s she is principled and determined as she rises through the ranks of what is defiantly an all-boys club.
When she is elected prime minister, she becomes one of the most prominent world leaders of the 1980s, not only for her role in the Cold War but for her staunch (and some would argue compassionless) stance on organized labor and Northern Ireland.
We also witness Thatcher’s fall from grace as she becomes politically tone-deaf and her relentless attitude of superiority leads to her party electing a new leader.
Streep masterfully takes her character from idealistic, to over-confident, to introspective, yet she never loses sight of Thatcher’s consistent, unwavering determination that made her such a formidable political force.
“The Iron Lady” was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, whose only another notable film credit was directing Streep in the light and fluffy musical “Mamma Mia!”
Lloyd proves she has the chops for weightier material as she nimbly takes us through the decades with a screenplay by Abi Morgan that only skirts speculation about Thatcher’s private relationships and instead focuses on the woman herself and her profound impact on the world and British politics.
If only other biopics of powerful 20th Century figures had the same wide-angled, non-tabloid focus of their intensely fascinating subjects. Cough, “J. Edgar,” cough.
I will admit that “The Iron Lady” is a fairly dry movie and once you get past the inspirationally trailblazing nature of Thatcher’s career, her global impact on the 1980s political landscape is really only interesting to history nerds like myself. It has all the thrills and pizzazz of a “Masterpiece Theater” marathon.
What is undeniable though is that Streep is compelling throughout and gives what for any other actress would be the performance of a lifetime. For Streep, it’s just another day at the office. Academy, give this woman the Best Actress Oscar from this millennium just so she’s not forced to go hunt down Sandra Bullock and take hers.
“The Iron Lady” is rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity.