For the second straight year, Hollywood stands a good chance of picking a Best Actress whose character is forced to contend with lunacy: in the script.
As the "Black Sawn" of biopics, "The Iron Lady" affords Meryl Streep an opportunity to wield her formidable Margaret Thatcher impersonation as a weapon against the disjointed, off-putting, trivializing movie where she is trapped.
Going crazy worked last year for overwrought ballerina Natalie Portman, and Streep brings far more acting resources to the task of cloning a contentious, history-making Prime Minister.
Like a clouded leopard against jungle underbrush, Streep once again disappears while fully inhabiting the terrain. At least until Jim Broadbent pops up over her shoulder in a funny hat as Thatcher's late husband, Denis.
Yes, Denis died in 2003 and this movie begins in 2008, which was the year of the Mumbai hotel attacks and of their daughter Carol's book revealing that her mother, now 86, suffers from dementia. As framing device, an elderly person looking back on life can be useful if not strikingly original.
A portrait of an elderly historical feature in decline is less frequent, unless it's Napoleon, still a bogeyman in Britain lest he inspire anyone to disregard generations of royal interbreeding or treat Jews fairly. But Streep is capable of going to nuance and beyond. She recreates Thatcher not just in looks and speech, but in every fleeting cast of the eye.
Having established the public person, Streep adroitly captures the private confusion, tremors, reveries, and sudden snap-back to reality as her imagined present-day Margaret Thatcher dodders but perseveres. It's a great performance, but then there's Jim Broadbent again as her imaginary best friend.
When Carol (Olivia Colman) prevails upon Thatcher to "see someone" to discuss her health, the doctor asks, "How are you feeling?" That may be the question of the age, she replies, but it's not what's important. "Ask me what I'm thinking."
At times, this movie sketches in some of that. Alexandra Roach is very good as the young Margaret, working for her father (Iain Glenn) in the family grocery, to the disdain of other girls, and enthralled by his speeches on behalf of the Conservative Party. With a degree from Oxford, she is determined to chart her own political career, to the disdain of the party establishment.
In an era where Margaret is expected to join "the ladies" while the men hash out the politics, Harry Lloyd as young Denis provides a sympathetic ear. For no particular reason, he's presented as roughly Margaret's age, instead of 10 years older with one failed marriage, a millionaire from his family's paint and chemical business and so able to support her ambitions.