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Even Streep can't save 'Iron Lady'

THE same problems that plagued "La Vie en Rose," starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, exist in "The Iron Lady," a biopic about Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep as the former British Prime Minister. While both films feature strong performances from strong actresses playing strong, real-life women, the scripts are weakened by going strictly by the numbers.

Sure, Streep reliably nails her impression of Thatcher - that swoop of big 1980s hair, the measured voice, the steely demeanor. Her impeccable ear for accents and detailed mimicry of mannerisms is well-documented at this point - who better to play this role? And there's fire beneath the reserved exterior: The way she dresses down her deputy during a crowded cabinet meeting, for example, is just withering.

But the film from Phyllida Lloyd (who previously directed Streep in the giddy ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!"), based on a script by Abi Morgan ("Shame"), reduces this high-profile life to a greatest-hits collection of historic moments. It's a trap into which so many biopics tend to fall in trying to encompass everything. Here's Thatcher's first election to public office; there's her ascension to the prime minister's post, the first (and, so far, only) time a woman achieved that rank. Here's the Falkland Islands conflict, there's the Berlin Wall coming down.

Through it all, her beloved husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), stood by her side. One of the more facile and repetitive narrative devices in "The Iron Lady" features the aged, fragile Thatcher seemingly talking to herself when in reality she's speaking to her deceased husband, a symptom of the dementia that's gnawing at her once-formidable brain. (Thatcher herself is now 86 years old.) This inevitably sets up a flashback to one of the aforementioned historical events. You just know that if Thatcher is by herself in her lonely, empty home, Denis will pop up to amuse and cajole her, if only in her imagination. It happens so often you can predict it, which erodes its emotional impact and the sense of loss it's meant to convey.

"The Iron Lady" focuses more on Maggie the woman and only superficially explores her global political influence; the inclusion of archival footage makes the film feel especially cursory. As it traces her rise from grocer's daughter and young wife (when she's played by Alexandra Roach) to titanic, divisive figure, it pays a great deal of lip service to the importance of public service but leaves you feeling dissatisfied. You never truly get a chance to learn what motivated her, especially given the gender gap she had to cross. And the idea that her family relationships suffered as a result of her political aspirations is something that's hinted at in passing, rather than explored.

And yet, there is Streep, in an array of prim blue suits and those ever-present pearls.

But even the greatest actress of our time can only do so much when the figure she's playing just isn't on the page.

Five of her most memorable films

How do you choose the best Meryl Streep performances? It's like trying to decide what kind of ice cream is best. Streep's latest transformative wonder is her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." So instead of choosing her "best" performances, I'll go with my five favorites. Dig in:

"Sophie's Choice" (1982)

The accent, the agony: This performance set the standard for Streep's wholly convincing immersive abilities, and it earned her the Academy Award for best actress. As a beautiful Polish refugee with a haunting secret, Streep is both beguiling and heartbreaking. This is a larger-than-life figure from William Styron's novel but Streep makes her tantalizingly real in delicate ways. And the moment when she has to make the choice of the film's title is just devastating.

"Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979)

It's a supporting role, one which earned her the first of her two Academy Awards - the film won five Oscars total - but she is completely in control of every scene in which she appears. This provided an early glimpse of the greatness to come, but here she's in the tricky position of playing someone we should hate from the start: a housewife who walks out on her husband (Dustin Hoffman) and their son (Justin Henry).

"Adaptation" (2002)

What makes this performance so irresistible is that Streep isn't so obviously "acting." She lets loose, takes chances and genuinely seems to be enjoying herself. She's smack in the middle of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze's giddy, trippy funhouse, playing writer Susan Orlean, whose book "The Orchid Thief" stumped the real-life Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) when it came time for him to turn it into a screenplay.

"The Devil Wears Prada" (2006)

Streep is just withering here. That monologue about the significance of the color cerulean alone makes this movie worth watching. But the performance is a delightful reminder that she can be a master of biting comedy. Streep finds the subtlety within her character's cruelty and brings her to life.

"Mamma Mia!" (2008)

This may seem like a weird choice. It did for Streep, as well. But while this can be cringe-inducing, Streep is just radiant. "Adaptation" suggested what it looks like when she gets a little goofy, but here we finally get a chance to see her let loose entirely, and she's having a blast. Watching the woman who is considered the greatest actress of our time writhing around in overalls on top of a barn or belting out tunes in a spandex jumpsuit is a hoot.


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