There’s one reason to see this film: Meryl Streep. The Iron Lady follows Britain’s Margaret Thatcher from aspiring politician to political powerhouse, from loving wife to grieving widow. Streep brings to this range of life experience her power to move one with the slightest tilt of her head, to convey inner experience with the minuscule shift of the direction of her eyes. By the end of the film, one feels one has been enlarged and touched by the depth with which one has shared the full life of another human being from the inside. We feel we know what it felt like. That makes the movie a great pleasure to experience.
The story’s told through Thatcher’s mental world in old age as it flows between past and present, and between what’s actually happening in her life and what’s illusory — particularly the hallucinatory and “alive” presence and companionship of her beloved husband, Denis Thatcher, who often settles in with her for a chat across the dining room table, on the sofa, and in bed, but who — as she at the same time knows well — had died a few years earlier. It’s a compelling, and genuinely interesting coda to a moving love story.
Thatcher’s against-all-odds climb to the pinnacle of power as Prime Minister of England is Horatio Alger-like (though her father did own two grocery stores). The film sees a relationship between her arch conservatism, especially her focus on individuals as responsible agents, and disdain for government solutions for people’s problems, to her own relatively humble beginnings and tough uphill battle. She remembers herself as a girl working in her father’s grocery store, through her early grasps at political office and her marriage with the wealthy businessman, Denis, to her rise as a national political figure. Along the way she has to overcome, and often overlook, sexism and snobbery (the grocer’s daughter in Parliament — you can imagine!).
In its treatment of her long tenure as Prime Minister, the film gives glimpses of positive and negative aspects of the tough-minded and at times brutally enforced conservative policy of the “Iron Lady”, and takes us through to her eventual defeat as head of the Conservative Party.
But for all of Thatcher’s central, and continuing, political significance, these are background to what the film focuses on and does well: the inner life of this strong and independent-minded woman, now diminished in strength, and with her independence challenged in even the smallest everyday matters — like going out on her own to buy a carton of milk. This is an imagined telling of her toughest battles: lost love and old age.
It’s not possible to know how much the subjectively presented film reflects that “real” Margaret Thatcher. Are these really her thoughts? Streep sounds like and looks very like Thatcher but, in the scenes of Thatcher’s mid-years, a little softer and prettier, with Streep’s characteristic girlish underlay (she managed to avoid this, however, in her astonishingly convincing portrayal of Julia Child in Julia and Julia). But never mind physical vanity: in the showdown — old age — Streep gives all to expressiveness. During one scene in which she’s still really good looking, it takes a long time to sew on a bodice button, with Streep’s impressive décolleté spotlighted all the while. I thought, she likes to allure, but she likes even more to be a great actor. There’s nothing’s left of handsome — or glamorous or graceful — in the old, red eyed, bulky, wispy haired, and often frightened Mrs. Thatcher.
But personality persists. This Margaret Thatcher maintains her full self in the face of the frailties of age, grief and hallucinatory confusion. We know about these, since the movie let’s us see her at her weakest, but the rest of the world doesn’t have to know! Interacting with others — with a doctor, or at a dinner party — she drifts off. But she realizes it. And will not tolerate condescension. How shall she retrieve her dignity? Characteristically, of course, by a rousing political statement, on the spot, articulate and vigorous. She rouses herself with a jolt, I’m still Margaret Thatcher. These are some of my favorites scenes in the movie.
Alexandra Roach is charming, feisty, looks the part, and in all ways creates an affect consistent with the mature Margaret portrayed by Streep, and Harry Loyd brings an erotic chemistry to their romance that effectively warms the movie. Olivia Colman as their daughter Carol portrays the conflicted but loving relationship with her extraordinary mother.
But how did the grocer’s daughter become Prime Minister of England anyhow? We get glimpses of what she did but no insight into how. Surely Thatcher didn’t climb the slippery slope just by being a peppery young woman. She couldn’t have maintained power and forced through her policies without manipulations, accommodations, negotiations and alliances within alliances, but these are barely hinted at, and the film leaves one wondering about the mechanisms of her success. There’s another movie to be made about Margaret Thatcher. But this one is compelling in human terms, a most public woman in her private life, a most powerful woman struggling with the weaknesses of old age, illumined by a remarkable actress.