It sounds like a textbook recipe for Oscar gold, and indeed, “The Iron Lady,” Phyllida Lloyd’s portrait of steely former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, features a predictably excellent performance at its center.
When nominations for the 84th Academy Awards are announced Jan. 24, it would be stunning if Meryl Streep’s name were not called.
It is her masterful work, and Jim Broadbent’s equally sure-handed turn as Thatcher’s husband Denis, that best recommends this tender, humanizing portrait of a polarizing politician. A definitive commentary on her achievements as a three-time PM, however, it is not.
Also not a traditional biography, “Lady” is mostly set long after Thatcher’s disappearance from the public eye. Here, we find an elderly shell of her once-domineering self, hobbled by Alzheimer’s. If it’s a history lesson you seek, a profile of one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, this is not your movie.
Screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame”) prefers instead to touch briefly on career highlights in flashbacks and montages. Insight into Thatcher’s relationship with President Ronald Reagan is absent. Her tangles with the IRA, like her eventual ouster as leader of the Conservative Party, are similarly glossed over.
Streep wonderfully portrays the bulldog ambition that fueled Thatcher’s rise to power. Much will be made of her perfectly finessed accent, and the remarkable physical transformation that has already landed “Lady” on the shortlist for Best Makeup.
But where Streep does her best work — when the character feels the most vital, and revealing — is in those moments that trace Thatcher’s ascent.
A shame, then, that Morgan and Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) are so much more fascinated by the PM’s pathetic decline.
Streep spends many passages of the movie hopelessly lost and alone, in conversations with her late husband’s ghost. Admittedly, the sheer skill of her work with Broadbent — a performer every bit as reliable as his on-screen partner — invigorates much of this maudlin material. When the movie resonates, they’re the reason.
So there is no doubt that Streep will earn that Oscar nomination. She deserves it, and despite her status as a seemingly annual fixture in the Best Actress category, it’s worth remembering that she hasn’t won since “Sophie’s Choice,” in 1982. It is impossible, though, to come away from “The Iron Lady” without disappointment, and the sense of an opportunity squandered.
Starring Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Susan Brown, Alice da Cunha
Written by Abi Morgan
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes