She Was Only a Grocer’s Daughter

12/21/2011 4:00 AM |

The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Like most of Meryl Streep’s films, The Iron Lady is mainly just a vehicle for her performance, a pretext for role-playing, another acting master class. Considering that it was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who was all at sea about where to put the camera when she directed Streep in Mamma Mia!, this straightforward biopic of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s let-them-eat-cake Prime Minister of the 1980s, comes as something of a relief just for its sheer technical competence. Like Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, the film sidesteps a lot of thorny political and moral issues by highlighting its subject’s personal life. Most of Streep’s scenes are as an elderly, retired Thatcher, dipping her toes into dementia and dealing with the loss of her husband (Jim Broadbent).

Usually actors become more guarded and their style generally coarsens as they age, but Streep has grown more vulnerable with time, more open. In her finest scene in The Iron Lady, when Thatcher has become power-mad and relentlessly bullies her cabinet members, Streep gets across this woman’s near-crazy, furious impatience, but Lloyd edits the scene in such a way that we also see her silent misgivings, her tiredness, her wistful longing to be somewhere else. It’s a tasty bit of showing off, and it hasn’t been properly prepared for; it feels like some lead-up scenes to this breaking point might have been cut, but Streep nails all of the warring impulses of a vexed, wrathful leader, and she has several moments as the older Thatcher that speak to a deep understanding of a woman who couldn’t be further from Streep’s own liberal viewpoint. She makes you see that a villain is not a villain to herself, and she lets you deal with the implications of that. This is acting at an all-encompassing, profound level.

Opens December 30