Meryl as Maggie in The Iron Lady: A Stunt of Genius

With the help of some great makeup, Streep slips into Thatcher's skin and finds the British PM's mettle as well as her metal

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Alex Bailey / Pathe Prod / The Weinstein Co.

It’s a truism, and therefore largely true, that American actors approach the characters they play from the inside out—psychoanalyzing the role, then finding some mirror of themselves in it—whereas British actors get to their characters from the outside in. Laurence Olivier said that, for him, props created the man: that an umbrella or a putty nose, an accent or a gait, could be the keys to unlock the secrets to Hamlet, Heathcliff or Archie Rice.

Meryl Streep works in the British fashion. Her signature early roles—in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, Out of Africa, the Holocaust miniseries—relied on accent and attitude, conveying a sense of otherness that her craft and star quality then allowed the audience to see intimately. She might be Sophie Zawistowski or Karen “Isak Dinesen” Blixen, but she was mainly Meryl Streep commenting on these roles, inhabiting and critiquing them in equal and salutary measure. That gift could degenerate into caricature, and in some of her recent films, from Mamma Mia! to Doubt, she was not so much playing characters as doing them: the manic mom, the severe nun. But sometimes she could find a soul under the grand technique, as in her Julia Child in Julie & Julia. There was an outsize comic figure whose quirky humanity Streep artfully located and inhabited.

(MORE: Meryl Streep as TIME’s Best Actress of 2011)

Her Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is another, and a triumph. Seeing Streep first as the octogenarian ex-Prime Minister, viewers may register a quick startle at how natural and plausible the resemblance is—unlike, say, Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar Hoover, buried under a mask of old-man gunk—and instantly accept it as an act of alchemy rather than an impersonation. (All praise to Mark Coulier, who designed the prosthetics, and J. Roy Helland, Streep’s hair stylist and makeup artist.) The accent too is impeccable, and its fluty soprano intonations, and the protruding teeth, which seems to be a Thatcher family trademark; Maggie and her daughter Carol (Susan Brown) both look like the dentally deprived folks from an Aardman animated comedy.

The real Thatcher, so distinct, driven and humorless that she was her own Spitting Image parody, gets softened in Streep’s caring hands, to the extent that even those of the hostile persuasion may feel the strange stirrings of affection, sympathy and pity. The performance is a stunt, I suppose, since it relies on the imitation, under layers of spirit gum, of a famous living person’s mannerisms; but it’s a stunt of genius. Incarnating Thatcher from her 30s to her 80s, Streep, 62, is convincing and attractive on every step of the long journey.

The movie is a nice surprise as well. Under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd—who, after her crass film debut with Mamma Mia!, makes a giant leap into competence—The Iron Lady is a clever and oddly touching entertainment.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’ review of the Mamma Mia! movie)

The Weinstein Company’s Harvey Weinstein, who hopes to ride Streep’s performance to an Oscar win for Best Actress, has said that The Iron Lady has something to offend every political sensibility. In fact, the movie’s subject is not politics but a political pioneer, Britain’s first and so far only woman PM. Screenwriter Abi Morgan, whose imposing résumé includes the new sex drama Shame and two excellent BBC miniseries, Sex Traffic and The Hour, focuses on Thatcher’s early rise as a Conservative MP (where she is persuasively played by Alexandra Roach) and, primarily, this flinty old lady’s mental degeneration. Thatcher’s career is seen in flashbacks from recent years; she has begun to lose her memory and her moorings, and carries on her liveliest conversation with her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), dead for some years. Her senile dementia is mined for poignancy: Queen Lear as your sad, vague Aunt Maggie.

(MORE: James Poniewozik on the BBC series The Hour)

Thatcher’s nomination as a feminist icon is dicey. True, she was elevated to 10 Downing Street when the Conservative Party had only eight female MPs. But Thatcher said, “I owe nothing to women’s lib,” and in her 11 years as Prime Minister appointed only one female Cabinet member: Baroness Young, notorious for her campaign against gay rights. The real achievement of Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century may have been to bypass the rich-Old-Boy network to win power despite being just a greengrocer’s daughter who considered herself an outsider even when she was running the country.

(MORE: Margaret Thatcher on the Top 25 Political Icons list)

The movie hypes Thatcher’s counterrevolutionary role in Britain’s welfare state—her aim to “shake off the shackles of socialism,” in the alliterative phrase that might have been written for her by William Safire—but no less than the recent band of contrarian writers, like Amanda Foreman, who in a recent Newsweek cover story called Thatcher “a world leader transforming (along with Ronald Reagan) the ideological terrain of the Anglo-American world while bringing the Cold War to an emphatic end.” That’s like saying James Bond defeated the Soviets. One could argue that Reagan hurried the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly as much as the internal failures of Communism; but to assign the Gipper to a parenthesis in Thatcher’s grand achievements is to ignore that he was the President of the world’s greatest military and economic power, and she was the Prime Minister of an empire whose sun had set decades before. If Reagan was the Dallas Cowboys, Thatcher was the Cowboys’ sideline cheerleader.

(MORE: TIME’S Top 10 Best Movies of 2011)

A clue to the film’s own politics is that it pays little attention to Thatcher’s union-busting policies—you’ll hear less about striking miners in The Iron Lady than in the movie and musical of Billy Elliott—and concentrates on the PM as a war Prime Minister, at home and abroad. Where her opponents within and outside the party use bombast, she drops literal bombs, and absorbs them. The “Irish problem” gets simplified from an anti-occupation insurgency to a series of IRA bombings; and the PM’s decision to send soldiers and ships to retrieve the Falkland Islands from Argentina is meant to prove her stalwart defense of the realm. In the film, Thatcher compares Argentina’s annexation of the Falklands to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, though that bombing killed 2,402 U.S. troops and the first Argentine maneuvers killed no Brits. Her retrieving of some barren real estate 8,000 miles from 10 Downing Street was no more significant a military victory than Reagan’s in Grenada.

(MORE: Could the Iron Lady Have Handled the Euro Crisis?)

Thatcher’s political accomplishments, or crimes and misdemeanors, occupy less than half of this brisk (1hr.45min.) biopic. The Iron Lady is essentially the love story of a woman and her late husband, an On Golden Pond—or In Gilded Suite—but with Katharine Hepburn romancing and bantering with a dead Henry Fonda. Broadbent, always a delightful movie presence, turns Denis’s ghost into a genial gent with the wit Maggie appreciates and the humor she lacks. Though she still bosses him around, Denis’s ethereal presence humanizes the Iron Lady; for in a life surrounded by a thousand advisors and rivals, he was her only friend. The movie’s Margaret Thatcher found it nearly as lonely at the top as at the end, and Streep is our good guide through the life of a woman who knew how to achieve power but may never have known herself.

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