Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher is a historic event, just like her acting career

Meryl Streep in Iron Lady. ()
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People see movies for all kinds of reasons: they like the director, the plot interests them, they love robots, they love romantic comedies, they love vampires, or maybe it's because it's the only thing playing at the one time they happen to be available. Sometimes, though, the only reason to see a movie is because of a miracle performance at the center of it.

There are performances that are good, and 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.

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, kidding her out of her seriousness which always seems to have been his role.

To her caretakers, it appears that Maggie is slipping into dementia. The device allows the film to slip back and forth between the past and present, objects in Thatcher's flat launching her back into memories of herself as a burgeoning Tory politician (and a woman, no less!), on a journey that will take her all the way to 10 Downing Street.

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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, but a portrayal of old age, loneliness and grief. The device is a bit hokey and artificial (as many devices are, if not used artfully), and there are times when the film seems to be jerking itself into position so we can move on to the next event in her past. It doesn't quite work: The seams show.

However. There is one reason to see this film, and one reason only: Meryl Streep's performance. The film will no doubt generate criticism because it doesn't take issue with Thatcher's controversial policies and the harm that some of those policies caused (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 film Phyllida Lloyd made appears to be the one she wanted to make, and hokey device aside, the acting is the only thing here. Not only does it redeem the film's faults; it is the entire reason for its existence.

Total transformation has always been the name of the game for Meryl Streep, although she has never put it in those exact terms. She is not particularly articulate about the art of acting (many great actors are not: 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 on the day of shooting. So, for example, she took six months of river-dancing classes for what would be a 40-second sequence in Dancing at Lughnasa. In order to appear that she actually was that person who could stand up and river-dance in a moment of wild elation, she needed in fact to become such a person.

When she and Kevin Kline, who had 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 (as one must do in theater), 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 may seem inconsistent with the awesome amounts of preparation Streep did for that role alone (she learned to speak German in a Polish accent, etc.), but her words are indicative of her great and intuitive sense of what film actually requires. Don't work hard in front of the camera. Ever. Do your work beforehand, months of work if necessary, so that on the day of shooting you can "just roll out of bed and do it."  

Her accents have often been discussed as though they are gimmicky distractions, but she does what the part requires. Shirley MacLaine, who played Streep's mother in Postcards from the Edge, said, "She completely abdicates her own personality for that of the character's." That is why her transformations are so uncanny, and appear to be happening on a cellular level.

She has not always been successful, 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 Seagull in Central Park in 2001, told James Lipton in his "Inside the Actor's Studio" interview that the best part about working with Streep is that she is as excited on the first day of rehearsal or shooting as she probably was when doing a grade-school play, and that her overall attitude is (in Nichols' words), "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 as an actress:  "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 knows how to pretend 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 (and she had been nominated in the same category the year before for Deer Hunter). In 1982, she was nominated for Best Actress in French Lieutenant's Woman, and the following year she won her only 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. Cary Grant never won one competitively, which is absurd. But Streep's situation is a fascinating one. She is 62 years old. Her career has become just more and more improbable and revolutionary as the years have passed.

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 very long careers, were doing campy horror movies and TV movies at the end. 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 expectations of what an older female star is capable of. She's like the Mick Jagger of acting. She has not been relegated to a back seat, playing cameos or supporting parts. She is still a leading lady, she is still opening pictures. She is the lead in romantic comedies. She does musicals where she jumps on beds wearing overalls. None of it makes any sense. There is no precedent for any of it. It 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!"  

Last year, Matt Zoller Seitz, in a piece and video essay about Dennis Hopper (posted on April 6, shortly before Hopper died in May), wrote, prophetically: "Contrary to what we’d all come to believe, Dennis Hopper is not immortal. Let’s appreciate him now." 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 difficult to get a perspective on just how groundbreaking her career has been. And it's not even close to being over.

This brings me to Streep's 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 too. 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, is exquisitely imagined and perfectly executed. It makes her emergence in the past sections of the film as a vibrant stalking lady in matching blue suit and blue heels that much more startling. Her voice is pitch-perfect Thatcher. As always (and this is an element often missed in the conversations about Streep), she inhabits that voice.

In the earlier scenes portraying Thatcher's entrance as a member of Parliament, she quivers with tightly held passion and conviction, showing the love this woman had for the fight. She didn't just believe she was right. She knew it. Streep shows us that 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 to head the Conservative Party, suddenly she starts getting advice on the image she needs to create. She has to take voice lessons to make her more tonally intimidating (and there is a very funny montage showing Streep doing what amounts to acting classes, learning to throw her voice across large rooms). God is in the details, and Streep's work throughout is superb. You do not feel the work. You see the result of it.

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, showing her husband's suits still on hangers, with Streep going through them, touching them, sometimes leaning down to smell the suit, and the flow of emotions that undulate across Streep's face (confusion, loss, fondness, fear) is riveting. It is in quiet moments like this that Iron Lady becomes, actually, not the story of a controversial female politician, but a grandly  operatic, incisively specific evocation of what grief really feels like.

It makes Iron Lady a weird movie, for sure. I didn't go into it expecting that I would come out thinking about the loneliness of old age, or what it must be like to lose a beloved life partner. But that was the result, and it is all Streep's doing. Streep is flat-out working on a deeper level than most other actors do. She pretends to the level of belief.

Politics, strangely enough, take a back seat to the struggle present-day Thatcher has carrying on without her husband. 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 I.R.A., the closing of the mines in the North of England that caused huge civil unrest, the Falkland Islands War and her uncompromising attitude toward the situation, 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 when we see her as a young girl (played by the wonderful Alexandra Roach) whose father was also in local politics.  

Thatcher was a grocer's daughter and there are hints throughout the film 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, so why shouldn't everybody else be expected to do the same? 

Instead of rendering a verdict on her political outlook, the film dives into Thatcher's relationship with Denis, who was often regarded as something of a buffoon in Britain. 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 the scenes between Streep and Broadbent: him 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 explains why Streep's Thatcher is lost without him. 

Thatcher's countrymen and women can argue over what her substantive political legacy really is. But Streep's creation is separate from that: it is a detailed and flowing portrait of a woman trying to remember her way into her own past.

Streep's performance is a masterpiece. Let's appreciate her now.