She was only a grocer’s daughter, but she taught Sir Geoffrey Howe

I never voted for her.

No, not Meryl Streep. Margaret Thatcher. I wasn’t old enough to vote until the last two weeks she was in office, but I was certainly old enough to be aware of politics. I read newspapers, I had opinions, I wouldn’t have voted for her had the opportunity arisen. I didn’t vote for her successor, I’ve never voted for her party, I can’t imagine any circumstances in which I might be inclined to vote for her party, and my impression of her in what I suppose we must call her prime (an impression that was strongly reinforced when I worked at one of the book-signings for her memoirs and saw the haughty, dismissive way she treated her staff) was of a single-minded, imperious, ambitious, arrogant, generally rather unpleasant person whose wrong-headed social and economic reforms caused a great deal of damage.

I say this upfront because I’ve just seen The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd‘s new film about Thatcher, and my response to it was not at all what I was expecting: I was moved.

That’s partly because the film presents us with a rather selective account of Mrs. Thatcher’s reign of terror. Screenwriter Abi Morgan shows us Mrs. Thatcher in present-day old age, struggling with memory lapses and the onset of dementia, never quite sure of the distinction between reality and recollection. The film offers a fractured chronology from which we piece together the influences that drove the young Margaret Roberts towards public service, the drive that propelled her into Downing Street, the defining moments of her terms in office, and, yes, the vicious arrogance that brought about her downfall.

Framing her political rise and fall in the context of the recollections of an elderly lady in less than complete control of her faculties has the interesting effect of ensuring that this is determinedly not simply a standard-issue one-woman’s-triumph-over-adversity biopic. Indeed, the film is written and directed by women, and takes great pains to position Mrs. Thatcher’s ascent as something other than a purely feminist narrative. Mrs. Thatcher famously disdained feminism, and during her years in office she surrounded herself almost entirely with male colleagues, promoting only one woman to the Cabinet; whatever your opinion of her, it’s impossible not to admire her achievement in breaking through the male hierarchy as she worked her way up through the party ranks, but she was not a feminist pioneer. She paved the way for herself, and only for herself, and women who have risen to the Cabinet after her have tended to find very different, less visibly combative ways of interacting with their male colleagues.

The use of this framing device also allows Lloyd and Morgan to give us what is probably the closest thing possible to an apolitical film about a woman who is now remembered as the single most divisive British political figure of the second half of the Twentieth Century. There is, for the most part, little sense of what Mrs. Thatcher’s platform was while she was in office, beyond election-stump soundbites about giving people the resources to help themselves/pull themselves up by the bootstraps/administer medicine to a sick economy and all the rest of it. We see rioting miners banging on the windows of her ministerial car, we get a brief explanation of the policy fiasco that was the Poll Tax, but we see little of, for example, the origins of the devastating 1984-5 miners’ strike, or of Mrs. Thatcher’s instigation of the wholesale privatisation of most of our nationalised industries, or the impact of the 1986 deregulation of the London stock market (a central strand in her programme of policy reform). We do see her decision to go to war with Argentina over the Falklands, and her giving the controversial order to sink the ARA General Belgrano, but there’s only the barest hint, here, of the massive fissures opened up in British society by legislation enacted by her government. Perhaps that’s as it should be in this particular narrative: Mrs. Thatcher once famously commented that “there’s no such thing as society”; in a film presented entirely from her point of view, it would be difficult to show the impact of her policies on something she was barely willing to perceive. And while the film certainly does not shrink from showing her almost messianic haughtiness, we are not shown the full extent of the irritable, demeaning way in which she treated her cabinet colleagues until very late in the film, in the bloodbath of a Cabinet meeting that prompted Sir Geoffrey Howe‘s notorious resignation speech.

What we do see, very strongly, is the root of Mrs. Thatcher’s steamroller-like ambition in her lower-middle-class upbringing, the single-mindedness with which she pursued her career, and the devastating, almost King Lear-like sense of loss that sinks in as she moves from a position of great power to a condition of great frailty. Meryl Streep‘s central performance is everything you’ve heard and more; she captures that distinctive voice eerily well, but her work here moves far beyond mere impersonation, and is considerably more than a simple above-the-title star turn, although it’s certainly a charismatic star performance. Through (or perhaps despite) the film’s fractured chronology, Streep offers an unflinching, astonishingly multifaceted portrayal of both the private and the public Mrs. Thatcher, and her performance, while appropriately cold where it needs to be, is surprisingly moving. She doesn’t act Mrs. Thatcher so much as inhabit her, there’s no sense at all of either caricature or satire (difficult to avoid when playing a controversial political figure whose vocal and physical mannerisms are as, let’s say, defined as Mrs. Thatcher’s), and the overall effect is quite breathtaking. Alexandra Roach as the younger Mrs. Thatcher matches Streep gesture for gesture; the best compliment I can give is that they are giving, essentially, the same performance, and that between them their performance has a depth that Morgan’s screenplay, strong as it generally is, sometimes slightly lacks.

But then, the rest of the performances are equally faultless. Aside from Streep and Roach, the acting honours go to Anthony Head‘s quiet, subtle evocation of Sir Geoffrey Howe,¬† and to Olivia Colman‘s shrewd, surprisingly sympathetic, slightly resentful take on Thatcher’s daughter Carol. Jim Broadbent, appearing entirely in flashbacks and as hallucinations as Mrs. Thatcher’s husband Denis, is absolutely charming and possibly slightly misused; he’s the closest thing the film has to comic relief (aside from one big laugh that comes in a scene in which Mrs. Thatcher rips US Secretary of State Alexander Haig a new asshole over his reluctance to support her Falklands campaign, then smilingly offers to pour him a cup of tea with the words “Shall I be mother?”), but the flashback structure means that there are limits to how far the film can explore the dynamic of their marriage, which I suspect had to have been considerably more complex than the picture we’re given here.

Overall? It’s an impressive film, but not a perfect one. Phyllida Lloyd, in only her second film, gets superlative performances from her large supporting cast as well as from her star. The camera moves far more confidently than it did in Mamma Mia, and she handles the transitions between the present, the flashbacks and the elderly Mrs. Thatcher’s confused hallucinations quite stylishly. If there’s the occasional directorial flourish too far – the carpet of rose petals and operatic soundtrack as Mrs. Thatcher leaves Number 10 for the last time as Prime Minister are a little much – this is still, overall, a very strong piece of direction, far stronger than I expected given her rather rudimentary work on her first outing behind the camera. The screenplay is occasionally a step or two behind what a British audience already knows about the events it portrays – when we see Airey Neave drive his car up the ramp of the Palace of Westminster’s underground car-park, we know exactly what is going to happen next – but that’s probably inevitable in any film about such a well-known political figure, and it does a far better job than, say, the BBC’s perfectly fine TV film Margaret managed in showing the astonishing inner force that enabled Margaret Roberts, chemistry graduate from Grantham, to turn herself into an iconic world leader. And while there are certainly significant omissions in terms of how much the film¬† chooses to show of the effect Mrs. Thatcher had on her country, that’s probably inevitable: there’s far more material here than could ever be packed into two hours or so of screen time, however talented the people involved. Lloyd, Morgan and Streep never sugar-coat their subject; they didn’t exactly make me like their Mrs. Thatcher, but their sensitive, compassionate portrayal of her plight in old age is certainly moving, and Streep’s amazing, possibly career-best performance must be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in screen acting.

Still wouldn’t vote for her, though. I mean Thatcher, not Streep. After this – I’m not always a fan – I’m prepared to believe Meryl Streep can do very nearly anything. If only she’d been in power during the miners’ strike.