Margaret Thatcher is alive and well and had tea with the Queen a few weeks ago, according to an article in the UK press. I wonder if she has watched Iron Lady, in which moments from her life are reenacted by Meryl Streep. If so, it must have been a strange experience.
Streep’s performance is magnificent. She is Margaret on the screen. Who else could have played this role? And who else but the real Margaret could have lived this life—one for which there were no role models or scripts.
What has it been like to be first Margaret Roberts and then Margaret Thatcher and then Prime Minister of England and then former prime minister and now widow? The transitions are the subject matter of Iron Lady. The last turning point—her coming to grips with the death of her husband—comprises the framework for the movie. Flashbacks to key moments in her past are woven through the middle scenes.
After I saw the movie the first time, one image that stuck with me was Margaret washing her tea cup in the last scene. There is a powerful scene earlier, when Dennis proposes to the 24-year-old Margaret: she warns him that she’s not going to die washing tea cups.
Last night I watched the movie again and this time noticed an even earlier scene: young Margaret receives a letter saying she has been awarded a place atOxford. She holds out the letter to show her mother, who backs away saying, “my hands are wet” and then returns to the kitchen sink to wash more tea cups.
Margaret doesn’t want to be isolated in a kitchen; she wants to make a difference. And, in fact, for over a decade, she is one of the most influential people in the world. To succeed in this role, she has fashioned herself into the fearless, even ruthless, Iron Lady—an identity that works for her, but only until 1990, when Britain chooses a different leader.
Who is she now, if not prime minister? As she slowly makes her final exit from#10 Downing Street, through the roses strewn at her feet, it is Dennis whispering “steady” in her ear that helps her keep balance.
But then Dennis dies. And who is she now, if not Dennis’s wife? What can she hold onto for balance?
We watch her in the process of steadying herself, determined to adjust. She tells the ghost of Dennis to go away and stop haunting her. She tells herself that she will not lose her mind. She announces to “Dennis” that she was fine without him for the first 24 years of her life and she’ll be fine now. It is a process and a battle, but she wins (in a scene worth the whole movie). She has achieved her angle of repose. She can enjoy the sound of children playing and birds singing through the kitchen window. She can wash her own tea cup and be at peace.