Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.
United Kingdom/France, 2011. Pathe, Film4, UK Film Council, The Weinstein Company, Yuk Films, Canal+, CineCinema, Goldcrest Pictures, DJ Films, Media Rights Capital. Screenplay by Abi Morgan. Cinematography by Elliot Davis. Produced by Damian Jones. Music by Thomas Newman. Production Design by Simon Elliott. Costume Design by Consolata Boyle. Film Editing by Justine Wright. Academy Awards 2011. Dorian Awards 2011. Golden Globe Awards 2011. Screen Actors Guild Awards 2011.
A slightly disoriented eighty year-old woman buys milk at a local supermarket and comes home to tell her husband, over breakfast, that the price has gone up and isn’t it appalling? When her housekeeper comes in to check on her, she finds a woman alone, talking to herself, a woman who was once the most powerful in the world. This is Margaret Thatcher, suffering the ravages of Alzheimer’s and haunted by visions of her late husband Denis as she resists the impending trauma of giving his things away and letting go of one of her last strong ties to reality. What this provokes is a whole day of Thatcher wandering about her home and revisiting memories of her enormously impressive career: her young, early days in politics when a degree from Oxford and a superbly willful personality overcame the prejudice of being a grocer’s daughter and pretty much the only member of her sex trying to make it in politics, her eventual triumphs in local government and, at her zenith, the first ever elected female leader of a first-world country. Her critics will be infuriated to see the nastiness of Thatcher’s ultra-conservative politics glossed over in this film: breaking the unions and inspiring a devastating recession are tough aspects of her life we have to simply get over in favour of the feminist triumph angle, and then we celebrate her late-career victory in the Falkland Islands (another highly unpopular situation that is not necessarily given its fair level of complexity). What is actually happening here is that shoring up a value sheet of Thatcher’s career is not among director Phyllida Lloyd or screenwriter Abi Morgan’s intentions. It’s a private film, narrated from the point of view of a woman whose trajectory, which essentially takes place over a very short period of time, is focused on accepting her own vulnerability to the same human frailties that affect all those who aren’t as determined to avoid them as she is. Essentially a political Mrs. Dalloway, this one aims to be a parliamentary-level repeat of The Queen without as much success; it does not quite juxtapose themes of duty versus desire as effectively as Stephen Frears’ film does (there’s far too little of her personal life to make up for the vague political stuff), but it does have its highlights. Morgan’s screenplay gives us Thatcher’s internal experience of key moments of her life and career without overt explanation, where simple moments like covering butter during a World War II air raid do so much to illustrate her unyielding personality, and difficult dramatic situations like her angrily taunting one of her cabinet ministers over a minor issue let us know the moment that her mental health was possibly beginning to deteriorate. What the film really has in its corner, however, is a spellbinding Meryl Streep: under heavy prosthesis and some wickedly well-recreated candy-floss hairstyles, she has come up with one of her most riveting and inspiring creations yet. There’s barely a scene that she is not in and, as a showcase for her immense talent, you could hardly do better. It is thoroughly exciting to watch her deliver speeches and dress down the boys around her, but the quiet moments of satisfaction, the confused stares as she watches home movies in her old age or just the regrets that keep her up at night are equally mesmerizing. Surrounding her is a terrific cast of British actors who do not disappoint, including Iain Glen and Richard E. Grant, with the best work coming from Jim Broadbent (as the beloved Denis), Olivia Colman as daughter Carol, and an excellent Alexandra Roach as the young Margaret Thatcher.