The movie opens in a convenience store where an elderly woman looks over pints of milk. She's wearing a scarf over her head and is bent from age; struggling to the counter to pay, she's pushed to the side by a belligerent man yapping on his cell phone and is shunted aside by another younger guy who is listening to his iPod. Neither of them, nor the store clerk, recognize her as the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, the Baroness Margaret Thatcher (played by Meryl Streep in a performance so good she's often unrecognizable from memories of the real Thatcher...it is a more convincing portrayal than her depiction of Julia Child a few years ago).
Thatcher leaves the store and walks home, shoulders hunched, clearly struggling with the walk. When she gets home, she fixes boiled eggs for herself and her husband Denis (played by Jim Broadbent) -- who has actually been dead for several years. Denis Thatcher appears to Margaret as a ghost for the entirety of the film in scenes that are set in the present. The movie flips back and forth between scenes of an elderly Thatcher preparing to give away all of her late husband's clothes and other items with memories Thatcher treasures of her life with her husband and her political career. These scenes set in the present utilize old-age makeup on Meryl Streep and feature Thatcher's daughter Carol as a particularly ugly and stupid woman prone to wearing very garish clothes who treats her mother with growing frustration as Lady Thatcher slowly succumbs to dementia.
The flashbacks of Thatcher's life center almost entirely on her husband Denis, with the exception of the first blast into the past which picks up with Lady Thatcher when she was still Margaret Roberts -- and she and her family were hiding under a table during the Blitz of London. The movie tries to tie bits of the present with the past to sort of explain how Lady Thatcher's mind is now working through fogs of dementia. This flashback to the Blitz, for instance was prompted by two things in the present: Lady Thatcher at breakfast (sitting with the ghost of her husband, who is eating too much of the butter for Thatcher's liking) and an assistant who put a pile of books for Lady Thatcher to autograph. When Lady Thatcher's mind drifts after looking at a photo of herself as a young girl, she mistakenly writes "Margaret Roberts" (her maiden name) in a book instead of "Margaret Thatcher". She then tears that page out of the book, closes the cover, and BAM! we're transported to the Blitz in London with Thatcher cowering under the table with her family. Her father says "Did anyone cover the butter?" and Margaret runs out from under the table, up the stairs, and into the kitchen where she puts a bell jar over the butter to keep debris from ruining it. She then races back down below stairs to reunite with her family and wait out the Blitz.
In the next scene, we see Margaret as the young daughter of a grocer (played by Alexandra Roach), sweeping up in front of her family's store. The pretty, fashionable girls of her village walk by and mock her for working and not wearing fancy clothes. Margaret doesn't care, though, and we soon learn she's going to attend Oxford. Her mother is not impressed by this but her father beams.
The film shows Margaret attending a political speech her father gave and she clearly has a political passion in her eyes.
After graduating from Oxford, Margaret is seen attempting to break into politics at the local level. There's a fancy dinner party that she's been invited to, along with two other women -- the rest of the table is filled with very rich and pompous men. Margaret interrupts one of them to correct something he was saying that was wrong, and the men listen to her but show her no respect. She tells them that the way to get the country back on its feet economically is to learn how to budget and make sacrifices like women do in the homes. The men laugh at her and soon shoo her out of the room with the other women. Margaret listens through the door as they mock her. The other women look at her like there's something wrong with her. She does not fit in wherever she goes it seems.
At that dinner party, Margaret's future husband was seated across from her however -- and he appreciated her and realized how special she was.
Margaret eventually runs for Member of Parliament for her district and loses that first race, when she was 24. The night of the election there is no victory party for her but she's in the hall where a party would have taken place and is dejected. Dennis shows up and tells her she did much better than expected, but she hears none of it and faults herself for failing. Denis asks her to marry him -- and she agrees on the condition that he understands she wants a career in politics, that she will always speak her mind, and that she is who she is and he can't change her. Margaret tells him that she will not die while washing out tea cups or attending to duties in the kitchen but that she will have a career in politics. Dennis is behind her 100% and says that he loves her and wants to marry her.
The movie jumps back into the present, with Lady Thatcher starting to sort out suits of her husband's that she's giving away. As she touches them, she remembers him and his ghost reappears to her. Her assistant comes into the room and doesn't know who she's talking to. Because she went to the market by herself she caused a security panic -- no one knows how she got past the police security detail and outside onto the street. The policemen who were supposed to be watching her (for her own protection) were read a riot act for allowing this to happen. It's decided by Lady Thatcher's care takers that she must go to the doctor to have a checkup even though she's not scheduled for another one for a month. As she's being prompted to get dressed to go to the doctor that day, Thatcher remembers back into the past about her first electoral win.
We see Margaret as a young mother with twins in 1959 (Carol -- the future gaudy, Versace-dressed daughter -- and Mark, who grows up to be very distant both emotionally and geographically as he lives in South Africa and doesn't want much to visit his mother). The results of the parliamentary elections are read on the radio and Margaret wins a seat. The kids are out in the courtyard playing on a car that's festooned with the Thatcher campaign logos. We then get to see Thatcher drive to Parliament for the first time and be seated as a Member. It's very much a Boys' Club, with Margaret not allowed in certain rooms because they are men only. Very quickly though, an Irish member of Parliament Airey Neave (played by Nicholas Farrell) takes Margaret under his wing and shows her the ropes.
Not much of Lady Thatcher's early years in Parliament are shown, but she's depicted giving a few spirited speeches as the Secretary for Education and Science. During the 1970s, when labor unions were attempting to shut off British electricity, sanitation, and other services, Lady Thatcher's depicted at a Cabinet meeting with then-Prime Minister James Callaghan. During the meeting, Thatcher attempts to correct him when he starts insisting that the government needs to "compromise" and give in to what the unions are demanding. During the meeting, the lights go out and the men in the room fumble and bumble and have no idea what to do. Lady Thatcher, however, had prepared herself for the rolling blackouts and kept a flashlight in her purse which she used to illuminate the darkened room while the men sat helpless. It was a fitting metaphor for her being the only light of reason in a Cabinet full of dim-wits and dunces.
Outside on the street, garbage is piled up so high it's toppling over and there's madness everywhere as the country's gripped with the union strikes. Lady Thatcher decides to run for head of her political party while out on a drive with her daughter. Lady Thatcher was teaching her daughter how to drive and the girl, Carol, was too timid and had a hard time figuring out how to pass a man peddling slowly on a bike. Thatcher grabbed the wheel and aggressively drove around the guy, shocking Carol. It was a metaphor for her wanting to take control of the country and move it in the right direction, around the dimwits who peddled slowly around her.
When she got home, she told her husband she wanted to run for leader of her party and her daughter overheard and stomped away -- upset that her mother stole the thunder that day when the daughter wanted it to be all about the first time she drove a car. Thatcher's husband Denis decided he didn't want her to run and went to South Africa on a business trip; Lady Thatcher got so engrossed in the campaign that she didn't even notice he was gone for a few days.
Back in the present, Lady Thatcher visits her doctor and lectures him that there's nothing wrong with her. He asks her how she's feeling and she gives him a lecture that people need to stop asking about feelings and need to start becoming more interested in thoughts and ideas. The exam is interrupted when the phone rings and Lady Thatcher tells the doctor that he needs to answer it because it might be someone who really needs him.
Back in the past, it's 1979 and Lady Thatcher's meeting with political consultants planning her run for the leader of her party. They're watching news clips of her giving interviews after her trip to the United States and talking about what she learned. On the tapes, she's wearing a hat and talking about how Europe always looks to the past while the Americans look at the possibility of the future. The consultants tell Lady Thatcher that she needs to stop wearing hats because they make her look like a housewife and that she needs to take diction lessons to lower her voice so she does not squeak when she talks. They also tell her that her goal should be to become the first female Prime Minister. Lady Thatcher tells them that she doesn't think she'd ever win a leadership position like that and that her intent was only to "shake things up" in her party by running. The consultants tell her that with a little image work and voice lessons that she could be a formidable leader -- but that she can't change who she is, only how she delivers her message. We then get a montage of Thatcher being restyled and having voice lessons as glimpses of British strife and headlines of the period flash by.
The election results roll in and Lady Thatcher becomes the new Prime Minister. There's a scene of her being taken to 10 Downing Street (the British equivalent of the White House) while voice-over on the radio talks about Lady Thatcher becoming the first female head of government of a Western nation. Then there's a shot of Lady Thatcher outside 10 Downing Street with reporters surrounding her like a rugby scrum while Lady Thatcher reads a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi.
We're flung back into the present as elderly Lady Thatcher's in her room, talking to the ghost of her dead husband Denis and remembering how much the two of them enjoyed Rogers & Hammerstein musicals like The King and I, with Yule Brenner in the lead. She remembers dancing with her husband when they were younger, then also remembers being dressed up in a fine evening dress for an event as Prime Minister when she was in a room lecturing the wimpy men who surrounded her about being firm and standing for something regardless of what the polls said. Apparently, this was a time when Lady Thatcher was very unpopular as Prime Minister and the men around her were telling her that she needed to compromise and not be so firm and that maybe people would like her more. Essentially, she told them in a polite way to go -- fill in the blank --.
We jump ahead to the spring of 1982 when the military junta ruling Argentina invaded and captured the Falkland Islands. Lady Thatcher convened a military meeting where she asks her generals what the options were: they told her that because winter was coming in South America that there was only a small window of time to reclaim the islands. Lady Thatcher decided to head to war and there is a scene where she personally stands at the planning table where little miniature ships represent the positions of the British and Argentine navies. Thatcher personally orders the sinking of an Argentine ship and then is seen mourning the loss of lives from the Argentine army's attacks on British ships. Lady Thatcher writes to the families of every British soldier and sailor killed in action and tells them that she is not only a Prime Minister but a mother and knows what they must be going through. Lady Thatcher promises that since Argentina started this war that Britain will finish it and she will not allow anyone British to die in vain. The war is quickly won since the Argentine are ill-equipped and have no real idea what they are doing in battle. There are big parades for the returning troops and Lady Thatcher's popularity soars. Lady Thatcher gives a speech to Parliament where she tells the opposition to put aside its carping and recriminations for one day and celebrate victory and be proud of being British. There is another montage showing Lady Thatcher dancing with President Reagan and news headlines showing economic good times in Britain. There's also mention of the Berlin Wall falling and shots of Lady Thatcher with leaders such as Gorbachve and Nelson Mandela. That brings things up to the early 1990s.
Back in the present, Lady Thatcher's gotten all of her husband Denis' clothes out of the closets and has put them into piles around the room. The agitation she feels packing all of his things makes her remember the agitation she felt when she was forced from power.
Back in 1992, at a Cabinet meeting, the Lord President of the Council is seated next to Lady Thatcher. His name is Geoffrey Howe (played by Anthony Stewart Head, who was Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Thatcher lets him have it for not being prepared for the meeting and for having multiple spelling and grammar errors in a timetable (for Britain joining the Euro single currency) that he prepared for her. She corrects his mistakes in front of the rest of the Cabinet and emasculates and humiliates him, telling him that he's "unwell" and should go to the hospital. The men in the room decide later to rebel against Lady Thatchers and oust her as Prime Minister because they think she bullies them.
There's a power play made and Howe resigns his position as Deputy Prime Minister (this was the last man who was still in office who was part of Lady Thatcher's original Cabinet from 1979). The next day, a man named Michael Heseltine mounted a challenge to Lady Thatcher's leadership of the party. There's scenes of all the wimpy, meek men whispering and plotting against Lady Thatcher -- and then going quiet when she'd walk by, because they were scared of her. There was a vote while Lady Thatcher was in Paris at a celebration marking the ending of the Cold War; Lady Thatcher did not win enough votes to remain Prime Minister but she could have forced a second vote to retain power. Her Cabinet told her that she would lose a second vote so she resigned.
The next scene is of her descending a staircase in 10 Downing dressed all in red. Her staff say goodbye and present her with a radio as a gift -- which Lady Thatcher describes as "most practical". She then leaves on a path strewn with red rose petals for her and departs the position of Prime Minister. She was followed as Prime Minister by John Major, whom she supported over Michael Heselton.
Back in the present, Lady Thatcher wakes up in her bed surrounded by all of her husband's things in piles. Her daughter Carol comes in and asks her if she wants someone to do her hair. Lady Thatcher tells her daughter "Why don't you do it?" and then leaves the room; Carol has a bad attitude and seems to resent having to do things for her mother (in real life, Carol is something of a flake...she was a TV reporter for a while but was fired and then was the winner of a reality TV show where celebrities live in a jungle and eat bugs).
The film ends with and elderly Lady Thatcher dressed in gray tweed at the breakfast table. She gets up to wash out her cup of tea (remember how she said earlier that she didn't want to die a housewife washing out tea cups). Lady Thatcher then gets up and walks slowly and with pain towards the stairs, then changes her mind and walks down a hallway.
MERYL STREEP comes up on the screen followed by the names of other actors in the film.
Then the full credits roll to THE END.
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