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'The Iron Lady'

Meryl Streep impresses as a powerful prime minister turned fragile 21st century figure.

Playing both the staunch human battleship and the diminished old woman sifting through her past, Meryl Streep is riveting in The Iron Lady. Her physical and verbal mimicry are uncanny, but her embodiment of an indomitable, uniquely British spirit is perhaps even more so. The performance provides this engrossing if somewhat deferential biopic of Margaret Thatcher with a richly conflicted center that befits one of the most divisive figures in 20th century politics.

Scripted by Abi Morgan (Shame) and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, Iron Lady digs more incisively into character than context. Just as Thatcher continues to have passionate champions and detractors more than two decades after her eventful 11½-year tenure as U.K. prime minister, the film stands to split audiences -- some will likely admire its evenhandedness, while others might find its point of view timid and mollifying.

It's a standard and probably silly assumption that any release skewing toward the specialty end of the theatrical market will take a liberal position. That seems even more of a given when the subject is an archconservative. But the film takes considerable pains to fudge its point of view.

Whether you see this as a shrewd move or a cop-out, the filmmakers have played it both ways, allowing Thatcher to be read as a towering leader or a bullying monster, depending on your politics. Fears among Tory prognosticators in Britain that this was going to be a hatchet job prove largely unfounded.

Instead, it's a humanizing, at times touchingly sentimental, drama. The keynote is struck from the opening scene in which Thatcher, in her 80s, alarms her security detail by tottering off unsupervised to the local shop for milk. Only after an imagined boiled-egg breakfast with her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), does it become clear that she has been a widow for many years.

Those imagined conversations with the ghost of Denis establish a poignant us-and-them dynamic that ponders the solitary fog of old age, but the dramatic core is the roller coaster of the 1980s, when Thatcher's policies forged a new Britain out of financial deregulation, mass privatization, decreased public-service spending and the hobbling of trade unions.

But the real meat of that story is covered in such whirlwind fashion -- reducing Thatcher's opposition to angry background rabble -- that the film sacrifices its big-picture impact. Thatcher's quasi-romantic political kinship with Ronald Reagan is distilled to a quick visual of them waltzing at an official ceremony. Considering how often financial pundits have connected the dots between policies of that era and the world's current economic chaos, Iron Lady seems coy in its reluctance to make harder-hitting, more provocative points. It's not quite toothless, but it's definitely a soft-focus portrait.

Release date Dec. 30 (Weinstein)
Cast Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Roger Allam, Richard E. Grant
Director Phyllida Lloyd
Rated PG-13, 105 minutes