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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Iron Lady' acts as a showcase for Streep

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

The Iron Lady

(PG-13)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

Some say Margaret Thatcher was the most significant and influential world leader of the 1980s while others bestow that title on either Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev. All deserve their respective placeS in history but Thatcher might edge the others out as she was the first female elected (not appointed) Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Making a bio-flick about anyone this iconic is a daunting task and one that sophomore director Phyllida Lloyd takes on with remarkable gusto and assurance. Different in every possible way from Lloyd's debut ("Mamma Mia!"), "The Iron Lady" manages to cover every significant event in Thatcher's personal and professional life yet seems oddly incomplete.

One could argue that 105 minutes is not nearly enough time to devote to someone with Thatcher's world stature, and that is a valid point. The movie could have easily been 30 minutes longer and would have probably been better with more time to flesh things out. Where Lloyd and her two screenwriters really drop the ball is with the iffy decision to make roughly 30 of those 105 minutes fantasy/dream sequences. Stuffing that much conjecture and artistic license into an otherwise non-fiction film is not only questionable from a creative standpoint; it allows detractors -- of which there are now many -- to call into question the film's authenticity and true intent.

The most glaring problem with "The Iron Lady" -- one many won't remotely consider to even be a problem -- is the elephant in the room that is the performance of Meryl Streep as Thatcher. In a manner not unlike that of Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, Streep brings a lot of (in her case, positive) baggage to every character she plays. She is -- as she should be -- so iconic, so revered and so respected that all we can think of when watching her is: my gosh, that's some terrific acting. Streep has become a prisoner of her own talent. She's bigger than any character she plays and this, also unfortunately, takes the audience of out the moment.

When we first see Streep as Thatcher -- in a scene set in the present day -- she is in a convenience store buying milk. She doesn't look like Thatcher but does look a lot like Streep in heavy make-up. We immediately get the cue that this is going to be a showcase for Streep the performer more than a biography of Thatcher.

Intermittently, Lloyd and the writers temporarily divert our adoration away from Streep when they show Thatcher as a young adult (played quite well by Alexandra Roach) growing up in WW II-era, male-dominated England. This is also the time where Thatcher meets her future husband Denis (Harry Lloyd, a descendant of Charles Dickens) and begins her ascension into politics. Although it probably would have equated to a much-less marketable film, the director Lloyd should have stuck with Roach and the other Lloyd for the duration of the movie. The believability factor would have increased dramatically.

As the older Denis, Jim Broadbent (appearing mostly in flashback or imagined) is the movies' Achilles heel. No disrespect intended for Denis Thatcher or Broadbent in general, but this character, a mere footnote in the great scheme of the history of Margaret Thatcher, didn't need to be featured so prominently. The only service the older Denis character provides is the imagined regrets the Margaret character might feel. Trying to get into the heads of characters as the filmmakers do here is mildly interesting but is also highly speculative and unfair (positive or negative) to the characters' motives.

Streep has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance and will likely get an Oscar nod as well. Is it deserved? Yes and no. Streep goes all out and she is good here, but all of it seems so extraordinarily calculating and awards-seeking and rings slightly hollow. Streep is the most respected actress of the last 50 years (again deserved) but she is also the actress with 16 nominations and "only" two wins.

"The Iron Lady" is a movie seemingly designed for the purpose for solely bumping up a legend's sagging batting average. (The Weinstein Co.)