The reviews for this film have generally talked about two things – how politically naive and simplistic it is, and how amazing Meryl Streep is as Margaret Thatcher. These views are both pretty much spot on, so much so that I almost feel like it should be thought of as two entirely separate films.
The political film is a series of vignettes showing critical moments in her political career. These scenes are generally blunt and purposeful, intending to showcase rhetoric and the exercise of power. Almost all of these scenes felt staged to me, partially because of they existed without immediate context and partially because of their content. Every scene is like Hal’s “St Crispin’s Day” speech. I didn’t feel like I knew more about any of the events portrayed, or thought about them differently, but they were at least well enough constructed to grip the attention.
The incredibly tight focus on moments of drama inside the political sphere, and the aforementioned lack of any context for those dramatic moments, means that building a coherent political argument from the film is difficult. I can see possibilities of reading it as either endorsing or condemning both her policies and her political style – probably a little of both is the truth.
The personal film is completely different. It’s entirely constructed out of the small moments of a lonely old woman coping with loss of power and companionship. It is a tightly controlled story over the time-span of a few days. This is where Streep and all the supporting cast really shone. I found myself completely convinced by the subtle expressions and small signs of intimacy. The attention to detail was intense, and allowed you to deeply empathise with the character. It was heartbreaking. If Streep doesn’t win an Oscar for this role, she should feel robbed.
The message of the personal film is far easier to interpret, it is about dealing with grief. It is about how someone can define themselves, and it is a touching portrait of love.
What is problematic is the juxtaposition of these two stories. It is tempting to try and see one as framing the other, and I have heard and read a few eloquent attempts to do just that. Are the heart-rending private scenes a framing device for the powerful “Iron Lady” in her prime? Or is it the other way around – that we feel the loss of power and dignity because of those scenes of empowerment?
You could also read the two inter-spliced films as a commentary on the divide between a public and a private life, about how she consciously sacrificed her private life for her public power, realising too late what she had lost once she’d lost everything.
The film provides only a few clues about how to read itself. The primary clue that I think unlocks the film was actually pointed out to me by CGB; in what feels like a moment of spontaneous rhetoric, Thatcher says “you must watch your thoughts, because they become your words, you must watch your words because they become your actions, you must watch your actions because they become your habits, you must watch your habits because they become your character and you must watch your character because your character becomes your destiny”
I would tend to read the film primarily as an exploration of how difficult it is to be driven and passionate while still maintaining human relationships. I think this is something which gently presses on both the political and personal scenes. When engaged intellectually, when actively engaged in activities, Thatcher struggles to recognise the emotions or thoughts of those around her; it is only when relaxed, when unfocused, that she reflects on others and can relate to them beyond superficiality.
In this reading, her hallucinations of her dead husband is not so much a vestigial relationship that dementia prevents her from severing, but an alternate timeline, a glimpse at the sacrifice embodied in her career. The flashbacks interspliced with her hallucinations should therefore be read as directly comparative; two different possibilities for how her life could have been. Her final farewell, her final disposal of his things, is an acceptance of the choices she made while she had the chance. It is her acknowledgement that really, she chose to be alone, to go her own way.
Her speech, quoted above, feels like rhetoric, but it is something far deeper – it is destiny. And so, with that quote in mind, you unlock the sequence of the film, leading her inexorably to her final situation. Her thoughts lead her down a chain, shown in the film, to being, truly, the Iron Lady.