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Perspective: Meryl Streep gets Margaret Thatcher right

In 'The Iron Lady,' the actress nails the former prime minister's look, sound and spirit, even if the movie is sometimes off, writes Matthew Parris, who worked with Thatcher.

January 08, 2012|By Matthew Parris, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • MARGARET THATCHER poses with Elizabeth and Patrick Hanlon, whose dog Jason was rescued by Matthew Parris, kneeling. Parris says Thatcher told him diving into the Thames after the dog was "stupid."
MARGARET THATCHER poses with Elizabeth and Patrick Hanlon, whose dog Jason… (Rex Features / RSPCA )

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.

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