Don’t think for a second that this is a political film. It is not.
The majority of the story is told in the present about an aged Margaret Thatcher, brilliantly played by Meryl Streep, descending into dementia.
Isolated from her family by her previous single-mindedness and ambition, she is portrayed as a woman who cannot let go. This is expressed in her continued dialogue with her eight years dead husband Denis (a miscast Jim Broadbent), but it is life without power that she really cannot bear.
This second dialogue, with her road to and time in power, is told in flashback.
It would be possible to criticise this as a poor and partial history, but what we are seeing is filtered through the old woman’s memory. Recollections of the 1970s seem deliberately to conflate the Conservative and Labour governments. The Conservative Prime Minister from 1970-74, Edward Heath, is played by John Sessions, who appears to be reprising his portrayal of the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson from the film “Made in Dagenham”.
The representation of the miners’ strike and three-day week that brought down Heath’s government in 1974 is clearly conflating the public sector strike wave in the dying days of the Labour government and the Winter of Discontent of 1978-1979. In Thatcher’s mind, and this is clear in the film, both Heath and Wilson failed to confront and defeat the organised working class.
This selective memory is also evident in Thatcher’s sense of her isolation as a woman.
When Thatcher arrives in the House of Commons in 1959 it is as if she were Lady Astor arriving as the first woman in 1920. No woman is seen on the green benches. This reflects Thatcher’s belief that she had to succeed in a world of men for herself, not to transform that gendered world.
Thatcher delivers a declaratory speech to the American Secretary of State Al Haig, at the time of Falklands, comparing war against Argentina with her battle to succeed in a man’s world, but this is all about herself and her ambition, not any dubious “Conservative feminism”.
Any history of the politics of the 1980s serves only the purposes of the film. Thatcher’s recall of her time in power becomes a rather thin “greatest hits” — standing down the moderate “wets” in her Cabinet at the time of the riots of 1981; the Falklands war in 1982; very briefly, the start of the Miners’ Strike in 1984; and the Brighton bombing of the same year. And then nothing until her ejection from power in 1990.
This constitutes the falsest note in the film, with Thatcher appearing to have a breakdown and capturing neither the real conflicts nor her sense of betrayal and rejection, from which she never recovered.
There are occasional barbs in the film. In the opening sequence the old and confused Thatcher wanders off and buys milk. “Expensive,” the milk snatcher complains, and she is pushed aside by her own creation, a suited, self-centred, mobile-phone-talking executive. But such themes go undeveloped, and the core of the film is of a latter day Lear, centred on power and its loss, of ambition and its effect on Thatcher’s personal relationships.
The film suggests that she neglected her family, pushing her children away and ultimately Denis too in her pursuit of power, and after power paying the cost. Again, there are no deeper underlying politics here, either feminist or anti-feminist, just a personal story.
The producer, Phyllida Lloyd, directed Streep in “Mamma Mia”, and the screenplay is by Abi Morgan, best known for her stage play “Tender” and drama exploring the internal world of emotions. The result is really a vehicle for Meryl Streep to act her socks off and to meditate on ambition, power and loss, which this film does very well.
But anyone looking to understand Thatcher as a class warrior for her class in the 1980s, or our class’s response to her, will have to look elsewhere.