Meryl Streep takes on her toughest role: the Iron Lady

She has played an Auschwitz survivor, a nuclear-reactor worker-turned- whistleblower, and the ruthless editor of a fashion magazine. Now Meryl Streep has been lined up to play the leading role in Thatcher, a biopic of one of the most controversial prime ministers in British history.

The Oscar winner Jim Broadbent is tipped to play her husband Denis in the movie, which is being developed by Pathé and BBC films.

The movie, set in the build-up to the Falklands conflict in 1982, will be directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who also helmed Mamma Mia!, the biggest-grossing British film of all time. Thatcher will be her second feature film and is likely to have considerably less singing and dancing than her debut.

The potential casting of Streep has surprised the film world, though she has played an almost unrivalled range of roles. After the success of Mamma Mia! in 2008, she played a ruthless fashion magazine editor based on the British-born Vogue editor Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada, perhaps the perfect preparation for the part.

Ian Freer, the reviews editor at the film magazine Empire, said: "Meryl Streep is the consummate film actress and can nail all kinds of emotional and dramatic colours, so she is the perfect choice. She delivered an impeccable English accent in The French Lieutenant's Woman and has played formidable women throughout her career. She will draw out the humanity in Margaret Thatcher – no mean feat."

The movie is set during the 17 days that preceded the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands and the ensuing 10-week war. As the storm brewed, Ms Thatcher's popularity was on the wane. Britain's triumph altered the public perception of her, and she won the 1983 election with a parliamentary majority of 144 – the most comprehensive of her election victories. However, it was the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, with the loss of 368 lives, that marked the most controversial moment of her career.

Damian Jones will produce the film, fresh from the success of the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. The 61-year-old Streep will be slightly older than the Iron Lady she is playing: Thatcher was 56 when the Argentine president, General Galtieri, ordered the capture of the Falklands.

Thatcher on screen

Andrea Riseborough, 'The Long Road to Finchley', 2008

"Captures to perfection the fledgling leader's mannerisms and magnetism in a richly comic performance [which is] teasingly heavy on sexual allure." Independent

Lindsay Duncan, 'Margaret', 2009

"Played Thatcher as a little too explosive and contemptuous of her colleagues to be really credible, but was good on her forcefulness... and private moments of weakness." Financial Times

Lesley Manville, Channel 4 drama, 'The Queen', (2009)

"A brilliant performance. She was so good I found myself loathing and detesting the woman all over again." Mirror

Anna Massey, 'Pinochet in Suburbia', (2006)

"She certainly looks the part, but her vowels stretch into the realm of caricature." Observer

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