Hasn’t this movie opened already? We’ve heard so much for so long about Meryl Streep’s scary-good performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and she’s been on so many magazine and newspaper covers promoting it, that I was pretty sure this thing has been in theaters for weeks now.
But no, The Iron Lady is opening in a few select theaters just before New Year’s, and on January 13th you’ll be able to find it at what Hollywood likes to call A Theater Near You.
So let me be the apparent last to report that Streep is, as Lady Thatcher herself would say, “ExtrAW-din-ry!” as the woman who changed the face of British politics. Sure, they slather on the old-age makeup so thickly that Streep is left looking oddly like a marble bust of George Washington, but that only forces us to recognize the astonishing skill with which Streep uses her whole body to convey her character. A sweep of the hand, a tug at the blouse, a uniquely placed vowel held for just the right number of milliseconds, and there she is, Margaret Thatcher, body and soul. I’ll bet a good dozen or so top British actresses answered the casting call for this part—at least in their imaginations—but really, I seriously doubt even the great Dames Dench or Mirren could have pulled this off. Streep as Thatcher is part nuanced theatrical miracle, part Las Vegas cabaret impersonation, in just the right dosages.
To Streep’s bulletproof performance, director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan have bolted an unusual structure for a film biography: They imagine present-day Thatcher, who’s reported to suffer from severe short-term memory loss, in daily conversation with her dead husband, Denis, playfully portrayed by Jim Broadbent. The Thatchers reminisce about their unique relationship, and through flashbacks we glimpse their courtship (the 20-something Margaret is sweetly played Alexandra Roach, although something tells me Streep would have liked to take a stab at that, too). In time-honored biopic tradition, all the political landmarks are respectfully visited. Thatcher’s election is treated as epochal; her partial dismantling of the nanny state is viewed with some distaste; her pursuit of the Falklands War is seen as part principle, part affirmation of her rightful place atop Britain’s military boys club. And her brutish treatment of her loyal staff seems worthy of a good old bloody nose in response.
It’s all backdrop, though, for Streep’s channeling of Lady Thatcher, and for the tender relationship the filmmakers establish between the sweet old pair who just happen to have been one of the world’s most influential power couples. They toddle around the house after dark, playfully jabbing at each other’s hot buttons, recalling their fondest memories, fretting about the future. It is at these moments that The Iron Lady finds its beating heart, as Maggie and Denis embody everything that we hope our own old love will be: comfortable, affectionate, and undying, even beyond death.