This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
People see movies for all kinds of reasons: you like the director, the plot interests you, you love robots, you love romantic comedies, you love vampires, or maybe it’s because it’s the only thing playing when you are available. Sometimes, though, the reason to see a movie is because of the actor at the center of it. There are performances that are good, there are performances that are even great, and then there are performances that are events. Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady is an event. To put it even more plainly, her entire career has been an ongoing event. But I’ll get to that.
Phyllida Lloyd (who helmed Mamma Mia!) directed Iron Lady from a screenplay by Abi Morgan (who also wrote this year’s Shame). Morgan has chosen to tell the story of the former Prime Minister of England by using a theatrical device: It takes place in the current day and an elderly and frail Margaret Thatcher lives in isolation, surrounded by her dead husband’s things which she must throw away. Denis Thatcher (played by the marvelous Jim Broadbent) haunts her, sitting by her side, appearing at the breakfast table, watching TV with her late at night, joking her out of her seriousness. This seems to have always been his role. To her caretakers, it appears Maggie is slipping into dementia. The device allows the film to slip back and forth between the past and present, as objects in Maggie’s flat launch her back into memories of herself as a burgeoning Conservative politician (and a woman, no less!), on a journey that will take her all the way to 10 Downing Street.
Iron Lady, then, is not a straight chronological biopic. It is meant to be not only a psychological portrait of one of the most important women of the 20th century (for good or bad), but an exploration of old age, loneliness, and grief. The device is a bit hokey and artificial and there are times when the film jerks itself into position to move on to the next event in her past. The seams show.
However. There is only one reason to see Iron Lady: Meryl Streep’s performance. The film will generate criticism because it goes “soft” on Maggie’s controversial policies, or doesn’t take into consideration the harm some of her policies did (although archival footage of the civil unrest in England during her time in office is used liberally). But the film is not meant to explain her politics, apologize for them, or defend them. It is a film about a woman going it alone in a “sea of men” (Thatcher’s own words) as she climbs to the highest rank in the land, and it is also about coming to terms with the death of a beloved partner. The acting is the only thing here. Not only does it redeem the film’s faults, it is its entire reason for existence.
Total transformation has always been the name of the game for Meryl Streep, although she doesn’t put it in those exact terms. She is not particularly articulate about the art of acting (many great actors aren’t: they know how to do it, they don’t know how to talk about it), and has only said that she often over-researches things in order to have confidence in the playing. For example, she took riverdancing classes for six months for what would be a 40-second sequence in Dancing at Lughnasa. But in order to appear that you actually are the person who can stand up and riverdance in a moment of wild elation, then the preparation seems not only correct but necessary.
When Streep and Kevin Kline, who worked together on the New York stage, came together to do Sophie’s Choice, it was Kline’s first film. He was meticulous in his approach during filming, making sure he said every line exactly, and Streep, who had more experience in film, gave him one piece of advice: “Don’t prepare. Just roll out of bed and do it.” This seems incomprehensible, especially in light of the awesome amounts of preparation Streep did for that role alone (she learned to speak German in a Polish accent, etc.), but her words indicate her intuitive sense of what film requires. Don’t work hard in front of the camera. Ever. Do your work beforehand, months of work if necessary, so on the day of shooting you can “just roll out of bed and do it.”
Streep’s accents have often been discussed as though they are gimmicky distractions, but she does what the part requires. Shirley MacLaine, who played her mother in Postcards from the Edge, said, “She completely abdicates her own personality for that of the characters.” This is why her transformations actually appear to be happening on a cellular level. She has not always been successful at this, but when she is, she is like nobody else. Mike Nichols, who directed her in Heartburn, Silkwood, Postcards From the Edge, and Angels in America, as well as the theatre production of The Seagull in Central Park in 2001, said the best part about working with Meryl Streep is she is as excited on the first day of rehearsal as she probably was when doing a play in grade school, and her overall attitude was (and I quote Nichols), “Oh, goody, I get to do this again!”
In an interview with Rosemarie Tilcher, included in the book Actors at Work, Meryl Streep lets slip the key to her magic: “I know how to pretend to the level of belief. That is the thing children know, and that we forget as we grow up.”
This is the clearest Meryl Streep has ever been in explaining how she does what she does. She pretends to the level of belief.
Streep hit it big early, first on the New York stage, and then with supporting roles in important projects. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar almost right out of the gate for Kramer vs. Kramer (she had been nominated in the same category the year before for her small role in Deer Hunter). In 1982, she was nominated for Best Actress in French Lieutenant’s Woman, and the following year she won her only (so far) Best Actress Oscar for Sophie’s Choice. Since then, she has been nominated 12 times for Oscars (both Supporting and Lead), with not another win since 1983.
Oscars are not the arbiter of success and/or worth. Cary Grant never won one competitively. This is absurd. But Streep’s situation is fascinating. She is 62 years old. Her career is more and more improbable and revolutionary as the years pass. There has never been another career like it, although the closest comparison (in film anyway) is Katharine Hepburn, who continued to play Leading Lady roles almost until the very end. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, who both had long careers, were doing campy horror movies and TV movies at the end. There was no place for older women in the cinema, at least not older women who had once been enormous stars. Most of the great stars of the 30s and 40s retired. There is a paucity of parts for older women. But Meryl Streep’s career has shattered that expected route entirely. She’s the Mick Jagger of acting. The Tina Turner of acting. The future for older actresses will be easier because of her. I hope Goldie Hawn will see a similar resurgence. What would it have been like if Joan Crawford was still meaty parts into her 60s? Meryl Streep has not been relegated to a back seat, playing cameos or supporting parts. She is still a leading lady, she opens pictures on the strength of her name alone. Unprecedented. She is the lead in romantic comedies, normally the provenance of the young. She does musicals where she jumps on beds wearing overalls. None of it makes any sense. There is no precedent for any of it. Her career is an ongoing natural phenomenon, and I still get the sense that Meryl Streep approaches every role with the glee of a child, thinking, “Oh, goody! I get to do this again!”
Meryl Streep is far from shuffling off this mortal coil, but because it’s happening in our time and right before our eyes, it may be difficult to get a perspective on just how groundbreaking it all has been. And it’s not even close to being over.
This brings me to Streep’s Maggie Thatcher. The power of the performance is not so much in the grand gestures and the big scenes of her fights in the halls of government, although those are exhilarating. The power of the performance is, as is usually true, in the details. The way her frail hands struggle to understand the buttons on her remote control. The way she sips her tea, her eyes floating around the room, a bit lost, wondering what decade she is in. Her halting walk as an old woman, exquisitely imagined, perfectly executed. It makes her emergence as a vibrant stalking politician in matching blue suit and blue heels that much more startling. Her voice is pitch-perfect Thatcher. But, as always (and this is an element often missed in the conversations about Streep): she inhabits the voice. It comes from her.
In the earlier scenes portraying Thatcher’s entrance as a Member of Parliament, she quivers with tightly-held passion and conviction, showing the love Thatcher had for the fight. She didn’t just believe she was right. She knew it. Streep shows us this in the tilt of her head, the quick intelligent squint of her eyes, her erect posture with delicately crossed ankles. When she makes her play for the head of her party, suddenly she gets advice on the image she needs to create. She has to take voice lessons to make her more tonally intimidating (there is a very funny montage showing Streep doing what amounts to acting-classes, learning to throw her voice across large rooms).
The elderly Thatcher, hanging out with the ghost of her husband in her chilly flat, is lonely, sad, and confused. She is condescended to by her adult daughter (Olivia Colman) and her caretakers treat her like a child. We see her sneaking around in her own home trying to get away from them. There’s a shot of her from inside the closet, her husband’s suits still on hangers, and Streep goes through them, touching them, leaning down to smell the suit. The flow of emotions undulating across Streep’s face (confusion, loss, fondness, fear) is riveting. It is in quiet moments like this that Iron Lady is not the story of a controversial female politician, but a grandly operatic portrayal of grief.
Politics, strangely enough, take a back seat to the struggle present-day Maggie has with going on in her life without her husband. This makes Iron Lady a very weird movie. There’s no other word for it. There are plenty of scenes of Thatcher as Prime Minister, although some of it is hurried over in a montage of well-known events: the 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland (Thatcher refused to grant the prisoners in Maze Prison political status), her refusal to negotiate with the IRA, the closing of the mines in the North of England causing huge civil unrest, her uncompromising attitude towards the the Falkland Islands War, the assassination attempt in 1984. We usually see her in isolation in these events, either making speeches, positioned alone against her opponents, or arguing with her advisers. She is seen as stronger-willed than anyone else (hence, the nickname). She has the courage of her convictions. She can be cruel to her team. She humiliates people in meetings. She doesn’t argue, she destroys. Why she held these opinions is given brief backstory (and could be developed more) when we see her as a young girl (Alexandra Roach) whose father was in local politics.
Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter and there are hints throughout that the condescension and hostility Thatcher often faced had more to do with her lower-class background than with her sex. It is also, perhaps, a hint at why she held the positions she did. She made her way up to the top without any handouts, why should it be different for everyone else?
The film takes no position on Margaret Thatcher’s politics. Instead, it dives us into Thatcher’s relationship with her husband, often regarded as a buffoon at the time. He was, by all accounts, a jolly and relaxed fellow, and Thatcher said of their relationship in her autobiography, “Being Prime Minister is a lonely job. In a sense, it ought to be: you cannot lead from the crowd. But with Denis there I was never alone. What a man. What a husband. What a friend.”
You can sense the comfort between these two characters in their scenes together, Broadbent putting on a silly hat to lighten the mood, doing a Chaplin imitation out the window to make her laugh, and, in general, keeping her company and holding her hand. It’s a touching relationship, and the little we see of it makes it understandable that Streep’s Thatcher is lost without him. This is the real subject of Iron Lady.
Margaret Thatcher held her own in a “sea of men”, and was one of the most hated, feared and (conversely) loved politicians of her day. Historians argue about her time in office. Politicians take positions on her policies. Her countrymen and women can shout over what her legacy really was, and they will continue to do so. But Streep’s creation is separate from all of that: it is a detailed portrait of a woman lost in a sea of grief, increasing in frailty, squinting at the objects in her home, trying to remember her way into her own past. Missing her husband. Missing her friend.