Jan. 11 2012 12:00 AM

The typically superb Streep galvanizes 'The Iron Lady'


What do Karen Silkwood, Isak Dinesen, Lindy Chamberlain, Roberta Guaspari, Susan Orlean and Julia Child have in common? Each of these real-life figures has been portrayed on screen by Meryl Streep.

But why stop there? In director Phyllida Lloyd’s “The Iron Lady,” the two-time Oscar winner — and 16-time Oscar nominee — slips into the shoes of one of the most prominent leaders of the 20th century, playing former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Streep’s performance is, like most of her work, splendidly textured and multi-dimensional. When Streep is truly in her groove, she completely disappears into her character., and that´s what happens here: She gives herself over to Thatcher´s stern starchiness and conjures up that steely voice that, the movie tells us, was the result of intense vocal coaching.

The robust portrayal is more full-bodied than the film that surrounds it.

Perhaps Thatcher´s curriculum vitae is too complex to be shoehorned into a 105-minute movie. While “The Iron Lady” provides a brisk and breezy overview of Thatcher’s world, it suggests much more than it explains. Those who remember their 1980s British history may be able to fill in some of the blanks, but others may wish the sprawling story had been given more breathing room.

Abi Morgan’s offbeat, sometimes darkly humorous screenplay opens in the recent past, with an octogenerian Thatcher now in retirement and struggling with dementia. Once one of the world’s most recognizable women, she wanders in a daze through the aisles of a London convenience store, looking like just another pensioner shopping for milk and griping about rising prices.

At home, she seesaws between playing the graceful lioness in winter and having conversations with her jovial late husband, Dennis, played by a jovial Jim Broadbent.

These frequent delusions allow Morgan to send Thatcher into flashback fantasies, in which we witness her stunning rise from grocer’s daughter to member of Parliament to Conservative Party leader before taking up residence at Number 10 Downing Street in 1979 as Britain’s first — and so far, only — female prime minister.

There´s little time for details or analysis. Lip service is paid to the sometimes violent opposition to Thatcher’s policies and the clouds of controversy that often surrounded her, but the film doesn’t offer a clear picture of Thatcher’s economic agenda, nor does it even touch on her close relationship with her  contemporary, Ronald Reagan. The 1984 miners’ strike, one of the key moments in Thatcher’s career, is almost entirely glossed over; that’s like doing a study of Reagan’s presidency without mentioning his battles with the air traffic controllers.

Lloyd, who directed Streep in the enormously successful “Mamma Mia!,” wisely keeps her star in the center ring as the circus of history parades around her. That´s a shrewd move: “The Iron Lady” is not a sterling biography, but Streep is pure gold.

‘The Iron lady’

Opens Friday at Celebration! Cinema Lansing. (517) 393-7469,  or www.celebrationcinema.com