Her political success is told as a series of flashbacks, as an old woman would remember her younger years – something would trip her memory, and she would return to a time more vivid, more exhilarating, more…..alive. And then someone solicitous would come into the room and say something mundane or innocuous, and the vivacious moment would be gone. And we’d be back to dotage again, unable to remember where we put our pearl necklace. Complaining about the high price of a bottle of milk at the corner grocery. Wondering why the kids rarely come to visit.
Meryl Streep is wondrous in this role. She can so effectively portray a teetering, hesitant old lady that we wonder if that’s really her. Thankfully, she did not attempt to portray her character as a young girl, or a college student, or a very young politician first running for office. You can play into infirm and elderly, but you can’t fake youth.
Margaret Robinson grew up during the Blitz – the German bombing of London, in the early days of World War Two, when Hitler’s Luftwaffe enjoyed air superiority, and a land invasion of England was seriously contemplated by both sides. Once, little Margaret ran upstairs after the bombing had started in order to make sure the butter was covered, a silly risk, in retrospect. But eventually the war turned, and the grocer’s daughter found herself with an invitation to attend Oxford, which she happily accepts. According to her memory, her father said only, “Make me proud,” and her mother didn’t respond at all.
Politically, Margaret was always a conservative. She first ran for Parliament in 1950, when it was unheard of for a woman to succeed in the “man’s world” of politics. She was told that she would be more electable if she were married and had children. So she accepted the standing proposal of old friend Dennis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent), who adored her, with the proviso that he would never stand in her way when it came to her strongly held convictions or her political career. He said he wouldn’t have it any other way, and he was, for the rest of his life, her companion and helpmate. She had twins, a boy and a girl, and was finally elected in 1959, and prepared herself for battling every day with the rowdy boys’ brawl that was the House of Commons, with the constant give-and-take, the public rhetoric, the private maneuvering, the perpetual fray of public office. But she wouldn’t have it any other way, either. She said she didn’t want to die washing a teacup at the kitchen sink. She wanted to live a life that mattered.
We aren’t told, really, why it was that Margaret Thatcher was so successful as a politician. Maybe she didn’t really know herself. Maybe she was the compromise candidate that no one could object to, and whom everyone wanted to take the heat, because the opposition couldn’t afford to appear to be “beating up” on her. We don’t see the backroom deals and the rigors of a national political campaign – as if those have faded into memory – but we do see the climactic moment when she decided she wanted to lead the party, which then became the springboard to being prime minister.
We aren’t told, either, much about her actual accomplishments as the first female P.M. in Britain’s history – as if those receded from memory as well, or faded into the insignificance of an already-obscure historical context. But she remembers how her children faded from her life. And how the criticism was carping and constant. (Duh, she’s in politics.) And how she couldn’t ride in the back of her limousine without being accosted by angry, jeering detractors peering through her window, but she remained unperturbed, as if nothing could really shake her convictions. Want the economy to improve? Balance the budget, and don’t spend what you don’t have. Jobs, not handouts. Tax everyone equally. And when they take something from you, as they did in the Falklands, why, take it back. It was reportedly the Russians who affectionately dubbed her “The Iron Lady.”
But her famed bulldog persistence eventually turned her obdurate and intractable. She began fussing at her esteemed Cabinet members like truant schoolchildren, and eventually the always-lurking old boys’ network found someone marketable to defeat her. She retired to a quiet apartment, where her primary companion was the always-affable, self-effacing, domesticated Dennis. Even after he died, she continued conversing with him, because he still seemed so real to her: asking about a crossword puzzle, discussing current events, drinking tea in the afternoons. Nobody really understood how much he always meant to her, even though he was never a public figure.
“The Iron Lady” is difficult to love because she’s so stiff and reserved and high-principled, which comes across as merely aloof and haughty. But she remains a fascinating character, even here in her dotage.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.