I have mixed feelings about this movie, partially due to my mixed feelings about Thatcher herself. The movie is excellent, don’t get me wrong, but in the same way that an excellent movie about Hitler wouldn’t make you like Hitler, I’m not left with much affection for Thatcher at the end. I am left with a better understanding and a lot of empathy.
I didn’t realize beforehand that the majority of this movie was told through flashbacks. Our first glimpse of Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher is of a small, doddering old woman out to buy a pint of milk. Not recognized or respected, she’s just another of the large percentage of elderly people in England. She returns home and we discover that her husband is dead and she is mostly cared for by paid workers. She has hallucinations that her husband is still with her. That’s a powerful place to start a story about a powerful woman. I can’t say I expected anything like it from the trailers. And by the end of the movie I started to feel that it often resembled the Notebook, because ‘MT’ is clearly a bit mad, a bit forgetful, nothing compared to her former self.
The movie jumps around a lot. We see snippets of high-school aged MT, meeting her future husband at Oxford, her first (unsuccessful) bid to become an MP, the assassination attempt, her bid for leader of the Conservatives, and her time as PM. None of it in that order, however. It’s not terribly hard to follow, but you do have to keep your wits about you. Also, the movie assumes a lot of knowledge about what was going on in England at that time–why people were rioting, why there were strikes, etc. etc. I took a Contemporary British History course so I understood most of the reasons behind footage of striking workers and riots, but I’m not sure how cogent the movie would have been without that background knowledge. I suspect it would still be a good movie, because the majority of it is about her and her ambition and her love for her family, and the rest is just background noise that affected those main three things.
So this is a portrait of a woman who…I think in her own head she just wants to do what’s right, to stand up for what she believes in. But in reality, that desire is fueled by a need to overcome her roots (as a grocer’s daughter) and to prove that she is someone to be taken seriously. I don’t know that being leader of the country was ever particularly her goal, but the desire was to be important, and in some way to show all the people who underestimated her because she is middle-class, and a woman, and a conservative. It’s an ambition spurred on by insecurity. And like all insecure people, there is a tendency toward egomania. By the time she is elected leader, and finally given that recognition, she isn’t inclined to listen to anyone else. Least of all the members of her own party, it seems. She still feels the need to prove that she is the most important person in the room.
And with her family it’s just the same. She doesn’t just need to be important to them as a mother or wife, she wants to be, in a sense, so important that she doesn’t have time to be a mother or a wife. She does always want to be the center of attention. she is always the center of attention. I read an article during that course I took about how she would always confuse her children’s names with her secretary’s and vice versa. Work came first, essentially. Perhaps if she had been born 10 or 20 years later, she wouldn’t have had children at all. That’s what I would guess.
But through the movie you do see an absolutely beautiful love story that made me weep. She’s not always pleasant to her husband, and as we are looking back through her memories and not his, there may be quite a bit of mistreatment not included or remembered. But her affection for him and her reliance on him is very obvious. And that reminds us that she is human, and not such a terrible person after all. She is an obstinant, extreme, egotistical person, but she is also not a bad person.
On a side note, the acting is great. Jim Broadbent (aka Professor Slughorn) is really wonderful as Denis Thatcher, and there is something really quiet and sad about Olivia Colman as her daughter Carol. The young MT was really quite good too, but I have to say I loved Harry Lloyd as Young Denis. Apparently he’s in Game of Thrones, so I’m sure we’ll see more of him, but he’s quite charming in this movie. I can’t help but be charmed by any man who listens to a woman talk about how she will not spend her life cleaning and cooking and then ‘die while washing up a teacup’ and says that’s why he wants to marry her.
So what about Meryl Streep? Well, quite plainly, she is amazing. The majority of the movie is just her, and even when other people are in the room it’s hard to remember who they are or why they are there. She’s the only one that matters (which is sort of an interesting mirror of her own idea about her place in the world). Meryl Streep is spectacular in this movie, and she goes on a real transformation from a young MP to the leader of the country to an old and senile woman. It’s very moving and an excellent film. Despite my reservations about Thatcher, I definitely recommend it.