Perspective: Meryl Streep gets Margaret Thatcher right

It’s weird, watching a major movie about someone you worked for before the world discovered her, someone whose political party you then joined as a member of Parliament with her as prime minister, and someone who now appears on the cinema screen like an apparition from the past, with liveliness and youth breathed back into her.

It’s even more uncanny when this woman is played by an actor with such a genius for impersonation that you cannot help thinking as you watch that it really is her — your old boss — in front of you, not a superb performance by Meryl Streep; not so much a reconstruction as a kind of haunting.

But weirdest of all is the disconnect: those flesh-creeping moments when she’s doing or saying things you sense are not quite in character — and yet it looks and sounds just like her doing or saying them. It’s as if an old friend had been invaded and inhabited by a stranger, turned into a puppet; and the puppetry is so skillful, the ventriloquism so pitch-perfect, that not until something jars do you shudder and realize it isn’t really your old acquaintance.


So this must be said at the outset. In her new film, “The Iron Lady,” Streep has got Margaret Thatcher. Got her not just in appearances, not just in voice and tone, but in her spirit.

I worked for “Mrs. T” (in our minds we still call her as that, even if she’s now the Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven) as a young clerk, part of her small office almost beneath Big Ben at Westminster, for her last two years as leader of the opposition before she became prime minister. My job was answering her letters from the public, under her close and personal direction, as the room shook with Big Ben’s chimes.

And then, elected to the House of Commons myself in 1979, I spent six years as a legislator in her parliamentary party, rubbing shoulders with her in the crowded voting lobbies, watching and (mostly) cheering her on as prime minister — and being skewered by those intense blue eyes as she would corner small groups of us in the Commons Tea Room, and pepper us with questions over her favorite snack, Welsh rarebit (toasted cheese on bread) topped with a fried egg.

Thatcher had a way of making you feel she was seeing your innermost thoughts and inadequacies. But you never saw hers. Those eyes were windows out, not in.

All of this Meryl Streep gets. If, watching Streep in “The Iron Lady,” you feel at the end that you still don’t really know Margaret Thatcher, then don’t imagine Streep has missed something. The Thatcher we knew — and didn’t know — was strangely impenetrable. I don’t actually believe she had hidden depths. The will, the drive, the purpose, the plan — the intense beam of her task-focused concentration — were the better part of her, what she mainly was, and it was there for all to see.

There was always a danger Streep would try to bring too much to the part — try to hint at a rich inner life. I doubt there was an inner life, and the Thatcher that Meryl Streep gives us is magnificently impatient with feelings, with introspection and with agonizing. Watch the sequence in which this Iron Lady lets fly at her era’s obsession with feeling others’ pain. It’s pure, vintage Thatcher: the woman I knew; the woman who scrawled “YES!” in her thick blue felt-tip pen across a message I’d drafted for her signature, telling a voluntary group that true companionship would come not from being together but from doing together.

She was there to do, not be. Unanimated by political purpose, she would have been dull company. She hated holidays. Asked what book (if she could choose only one) she would take to a desert island, she replied she’d take a big, thick textbook on astronomy, because this was a science she’d never had time to master. When I asked her daughter Carol what her mother was really like at home at the height of her powers, she replied without words. Carol (whose book on her mother inspired the film) just placed the palms of both hands flat against the sides of her head, to left and right of each eye. “Blinkered,” Carol’s gesture said. This too, Streep gets.

Theater bored Thatcher, but she was instinctively theatrical. Almost the only evidence we have that she had a sense of humor (jokes entirely escaped her) was her own burlesque interpretation of herself. Gay men in Britain are typically better (and more enthusiastic) at Thatcher impersonations than most women.

She was declamatory or she was nothing. Watch Streep’s rendering of an impromptu speech at a private dinner party, rousing herself temporarily from the unfocused forgetfulness of old age, to the astonishment of her guests. This (Lady Thatcher’s closest friends tell me) is exactly how she has been in her last years — suddenly formidable, suddenly collecting herself, then lapsing again.

Thirty-five years ago it was full-on declamatory, all the time. I once found her alone in the opposition leader’s Cabinet meeting room, teetering on stockinged toes on a chair by the wall. She was running her fingers along the tops of the picture frames. She saw me. “It’s the way every woman knows,” she boomed, “that a room’s been cleaned properly.” Once I accompanied her on a walking tour of a South London street market when — to her retinue’s horror — she grabbed a street-cleaning machine from its amazed operator and careened off through the market stalls, crying, “Only a woman can get into the corners men can’t reach.”

“The Iron Lady” delicately reflects the inherent conflict between Thatcher the careerist and Margaret the mother and housewife. I don’t think she ever really resolved it herself. She had disdain for women’s liberation movements and made much of cooking her husband Denis’ supper and of a wifely understanding of household economics, and some of this was genuine — but most of us around her felt some also was for political effect among what she called “our people” — right-wing and middle-class voters. When tired or struggling to make headway she could speak quite bitterly about the uselessness of the human male, and she passionately resented the sexist opposition she had to fight to make her way in politics.

Most of us who knew her think she was conscious and proud of striking a blow for women and for equality but proud most of all of doing it by personal example rather than preaching and theory. Meryl Streep captures the tension between feminism and conservatism perfectly.

She also had little room for sentimentality, though she knew others appreciated it. While I was working for her, I dived into the Thames one winter day to rescue a drowning dog. Thatcher presented me with an award from an animal charity and was all smiles, but privately, before the ceremony, she told me: “A dog? You rescued a dog? What a stupid thing to do.” I almost can hear Streep reciting those lines even though they’re not in the movie.

What then, are the moments the Streep interpretation gets it weirdly wrong?

I could complain that I never saw her wear a hat in the Commons — women didn’t — but perhaps that’s nit-picking. Also, Streep strides, while Thatcher walked in a succession of small steps, hurriedly, but determined not to look unladylike.

More important, I don’t think the romance or the tensions with Denis are quite right. He was (but in the movie never looks) 10 years older than her; divorced; crisper; experienced; sophisticated; more commanding; almost a father figure (she worshiped her father). In choosing him, she found not just love but a financial backer for her legal studies, for her child-rearing and for her politics. She adored and respected him — we could all see that — but it was not as mushy or as chummy as in the movie.

There is one more hugely important point to make about “The Iron Lady.” Here in Britain, the more loopy of the old lady’s disciples have attacked the movie as an act of aggression or disrespect because it depicts her as fitfully senile. They are wrong. She is fitfully senile. She does forget that her husband is dead. It was a brave director’s decision to angle this movie, and the recollections of a great life, through the eyes of an old woman losing her mind.

“The Iron Lady” is a stirring portrait of a magnificent stateswoman, accurate in its essentials and in its spirit even though it takes liberties with detail and chronology. It also is a sympathetic treatment of an important subject, dementia.

And Meryl Streep’s performance transcends the mimicry that all of us who knew her learned to do as party entertainment. It is a triumph not just of imitation but of understanding.

Parris, a former Conservative member of Parliament, is an author and television commentator in Britain and a regular columnist for The Times of London.