In a recent New York Times interview, Meryl Streep admitted she couldn’t resist playing Margaret Thatcher, the first woman in the West elected as a head of government. Why the justification? The role of the contentious, win-at-all-cost Conservative leader—the most transformative British politician of the last 50 years—should be red meat for any actor. YouTube clips of her battling in the House of Commons are nothing short of star turns. Thatcher knew the power of rhetoric and her perfectly coiffed, hard as nails image. Pity the fool who was the target of her barbs. Subtlety be damned, Streep lets it rip, ego unleashed and exposed. Without a doubt, the galvanizing Streep will win her second Best Actress Oscar (I’m willing to eat those words).
For the biopic genre, the take on Thatcher’s life is bewilderingly original, but political viewpoints aside, viewers should be forewarned: you might feel misdirected. For nearly half of the film, Thatcher is portrayed in her eighties, widowed, and with lapses of dementia. It opens in 2008 with Thatcher wandering into a corner grocery store (in a security lapse), her eyes straining to focus on her surroundings, and then coming home, imagining she’s having a breakfast of poached eggs with her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), who has been dead for years. The film is as much as a long goodbye to him as it is a greatest hits recollection of her career. The real-life and unsentimental Thatcher would surely recoil over the film’s enforcement of closure.
However, never before in recent memory has a film so deconstructed a public figure. Both the iron lady moniker and façade melt away to expose her physical vulnerability and ill-ease after the fall from power. She isn’t so much knocked off a pedestal but made flesh and blood, without downplaying her achievements. A lower middle-class grocer’s daughter, she studied at Oxford and won election to Parliament in 1959, when very few women had run for office, though the film heightens her isolation as the only female seen in the House of Commons. Yet the film continues to walk in the middle: it offers hints that her scalding rants foreshadow her mental instability while also supposing that she embraced her delusions, believing she was beyond reproach and taking umbrage at any insubordination, real or feared. Unlike their subject, the filmmakers don’t take a definitive stand.
More often than not, the transitions between the present and her hazy memories are smooth, but occasionally glaringly obvious; at the mention of “Rogers and Hammerstein,” the elderly Thatcher’s thoughts go back to seeing The King and I with her husband in the 1950s. And as the film moves on, Denis continues to pop in and out, morphing into a voice of consciousness and then a quasi-narrator. For all the drama of her political life—her battles with the unions, Argentine generals, members of her own party, plus surviving an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army—the overall effect will be anticlimactic in comparison.
Regardless, viewers will recognize the depiction of her at her most combative. The most succinct section of the episodic remembrance covers her reaction to the Argentine military junta’s out-of-left-field invasion of the Falkland Islands. Her sense of right and wrong couldn’t be clearer. Those looking for a punching bag, though, have to search elsewhere. There’s no mention of her anti-divestiture South African policy, Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, her allegedly brisk relationship with Queen Elizabeth, to name a few out of a dozen potential conflicts. The timeline jumps over the decade of the 1960s entirely. The film devotes some screen time to the corrosive fight between her government and the National Union of Mineworkers, but given that she’s in every scene, her point of view flattens everyone else’s. As a consequence, labor comes off poorly (as does the befuddled Labour Party). In fact, anyone coming in with a grudge will be defeated. Harboring rancor towards a frail woman, confused and staring into space, is like beating up on a grandmother.
The main challenge for the audience, chomping at the bit, is to accept the script’s insistence of placing Dennis by her side, framing her life through him. (Must a powerful woman share the spotlight with a man?) When one thinks of Thatcher’s career, her marriage is not the first aspect, or tenth, that comes to mind. At least on screen, she saves her passion for her ideas, which she holds ever more unwaveringly as she ages. She may have shared much of the same ideology as Ronald Reagan, but she and Denis were no Ron and Nancy, nor an entangled partnership like that of Bill and Hillary.