Is there anything that Meryl Streep can’t do as an actress? One can only marvel at her virtuoso performance as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, the hardass ultraconservative who became the first woman prime minister, from 1979 to 1990. Screenwriter Abi Morgan is more empathetic to the Iron Lady, who revitalized Britain at the expense of widespread unemployment and social unrest, than, say, Elvis Costello, who spat out, “When England was the whore of the world/Margaret was her madam.”
But then Streep and director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) are hunting different game than the usual biopic. The Iron Lady – a kind of female spin on King Lear – is framed with Thatcher – weakened by old age and encroaching dementia (great makeup; J. Edgar, take note) – remembering her youth, her fight for political prominence in a world of men, her marriage to businessman Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent) and her neglect of him and their two children. Thatcher’s chats with the ghost of her dead husband (bravo, Broadbent) are wonderfully droll. The sharp economy of Lloyd’s direction allows the incontestably great Streep to take impressionistic snatches of a life and build a woman in full. This is acting of the highest order.