By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
It would be oddly relieving if, just once, Meryl Streep would deliver a lousy performance. Just flat-out stink up the joint to prove she's fallibly human. Even in worse movies than The Iron Lady — and there haven't been many in her career — Streep is so perfect in appearance, deportment and often accents that she might be computer generated.
But, oh, how The Iron Lady tries to locate a chink in her armor, by burying Streep in ill-conceived plotting and layers of latex to play former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The actor fends off each misstep by others to astonish again, yet to no worthwhile end.
Phyllida Lloyd's movie is all stiff upper lip and quivering soul, too timid to make this firestorm politician's life more than just another star carriage to an Oscar nomination. It is Lloyd's monument to the actor first and her subject second. Like most monuments, the movie feels impenetrable and cold to the touch.
The Iron Lady is sentimental speculation of how Thatcher spends her final years, in a fog of senility allowing clear flashbacks to bullet points of her career. Flashbacks are what the preview trailers are built upon, with Streep radiantly challenging what had been exclusively a men's club of leadership. In fact, the movie spends nearly as much time on the now, with doddering Margaret imagining her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, likewise always excellent) still offering convivial advice.
These scenes are warmly effective but might be better off bunched at the end of a more linear narrative. Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan are constantly distracted by the past where stuffily rousing moments reside, and costuming and hairstyle is the toughest part of playing Thatcher for Streep. The rise to power is a triumph muted by Downing Street decorum, with Clint Mansell and Thomas Newman competing to see who can compose the pushiest musical cue.
Yanks familiar with British politics in the 1980s get buzz topics — the Falklands War, labor union disputes, terrorism, hunger strikes — and only Thatcher's side of the stories. She is as indomitable as the actor portraying her, immune to criticism while the movie dismisses anyone who tries. Thatcher was a polarizing conservative figure, yet The Iron Lady views her solely as Great Britain's god-sent savior from itself. Certainly there are many who disagree.
There's no disputing Streep's brilliance, which this time feels more calculated than usual, in a movie demanding only an impersonation. She unerringly slips into Thatcher's trilling speech pattern and imperious glares, and she practically withers before your eyes during the senility segments. She hasn't failed as an actor, but The Iron Lady shouldn't earn Streep a third Academy Award simply because voters believe she's overdue.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.