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Hitchens and Thatcher, Streep and "The Iron Lady"

The legacy of the former British Prime Minister is as hotly debated as ever, but _The Iron Lady_ won't be tipping the scales.
David Hudson
The Daily

The late Christopher Hitchens enjoyed telling the story of meeting Margaret Thatcher in the late 70s, back when, as Mark Dery puts it in a cracking piece I'll get to in a moment, "the post-9/11 libertarian hawk and vorpal swordsman of the New Atheism was lefter than he is now." (Dery was writing in the summer of 2010.) Hitchens so enjoyed the telling and the retelling that the story eventually took on the form of a well-rehearsed stand-up routine. For comparison, you can watch a relatively short early draft here, but trust me, you'll want to take the five-and-a-half minutes for this one:

For Mark Dery, the crucial question is, "Why does a certain sort of Englishman squirm with delight at the thought of being taken in hand and sharply disciplined by Milton Friedman's idea of Emma Peel? And the flip answer is: the English Vice, French prostitutes' wry term for caning or spanking as sadomasochistic sex play." But of course, there must be more to it than that:

Fascinatingly, Hitchens isn't the only Englishman to have fallen prey to Attila the Hen, as her detractors called her. In his review of Hugo Young's Thatcher biography, The Iron Lady, Martin Amis quotes his father Kingsley, who thought Thatcher's beauty "so extreme that… it can trap me for a split second into thinking I am looking at a science-fiction illustration of some time ago showing the beautiful girl who has become President of the Solar Federation in the year 2200. The fact that it is not a sensual or sexy beauty does  not make it a less sexual beauty, and that sexuality is still, I think, an underrated factor in her appeal (or repellence)."

At a loss to explain his father's Thatcherphilia, the younger Amis wonders if it has to do with the aphrodisiac effects of power or "another cliche: the English love of chastisement."

Dery cites two other prominent Englishmen who willingly and openly fell under the spell as well, Philip Larkin and JG Ballard. The explanation Dery seems to find most satisfying: "Male Thatcherphilia is always unsettled by its latent homoeroticism; the man who thrills to Maggie's cruel sneer, who dreams of being dominated by the nation's headmistress, also wonders about the deeper implications of his attraction to an Iron Lady whose sexual sizzle owes a lot to her symbolic masculinity — that is, her appropriation of male power, in the same way that much of a dungeon mistress's voltage is as semiotic as it is purely physical, its zap greatly enhanced by vestments of butch power like jackboots and riding crop. All that's missing is the femdom strap-on."

On a more somber note, it's widely, albeit quietly acknowledged that Margaret Thatcher is currently living out her last days. Referencing discussions being "held in secret," the Telegraph's Peter Oborne argues that "it would be wrong to give Lady Thatcher a state funeral, even though I accept that she was a very great woman, one of the six or seven most important and admirable prime ministers to occupy Downing Street in the almost 300 years since the office was invented."

Naturally, Martin Kettle's assessment of Thatcher's legacy in today's Guardian (in the immediate wake of last night's release of a batch of state papers dating back to 1981) is nowhere near as admiring: "Thatcher's stock-in-trade was division. By instinct, inclination and effect she was a polarizer. She glorified individualism and the nation state, but despised the communities, the traditions and the social bonds that existed in between them. When she spoke about 'our people' she did not mean the people of Britain, or even England; she meant people who thought like her and who shared her many prejudices. And most British people never voted for her, in spite of a press-driven personality cult unrivaled here since the death of Churchill. She abhorred disorder, decadence and bad behavior, but she was the patron-in-chief of a process of social and cultural atomization which has fostered all of those things, and still does."

All of which brings us, of course, to the biopic opening stateside today. I want to turn first not to a film critic but to a journalist who knew Thatcher, BBC political editor Nick Robinson:

The Iron Lady works as a compelling three dimensional personal drama. As political documentary it is two dimensional. This is not an assessment of the Thatcher Years. It is a vivid and, at times, moving story of one woman's lonely and dogged fight against the painfully limited expectations of her own gender embodied by her own mother, the unquestioning prejudice of most men of her age and the suffocating instinct to patronize of those who have inherited their positions rather than earned them….

The film does not so much fail as fail to try to chart the social impact of her policies, the political choices flunked as well those stuck to resolutely or questions about whether she or her critics — whether in the Labour Party or the Tory "wets" who warned of the consequences of her economic policies or the Cabinet who ultimately forced her from office — were right or wrong….

Her friends won't like the personal aspects of this film. Her enemies won't like the political — essentially Thatcherite — take on history. What I took away from it was a reminder of the nerve-tingling passions, divisions and high drama generated by Margaret Thatcher's years in power but, above all, an engrossing reminder of the extraordinary story of how she got to Downing Street at all.

We haven't yet mentioned the other institution-unto-herself integral to this project, so to turn to Dan Callahan in the L: "Like most of Meryl Streep's films, The Iron Lady is mainly just a vehicle for her performance, a pretext for role-playing, another acting master class. Considering that it was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who was all at sea about where to put the camera when she directed Streep in Mamma Mia!, this straightforward biopic… comes as something of a relief just for its sheer technical competence…. Usually actors become more guarded and their style generally coarsens as they age, but Streep has grown more vulnerable with time, more open…. This is acting at an all-encompassing, profound level."

In the Independent, Clemency Burton-Hill has extensive notes on a recent on-stage Q&A with Streep and, in the New York Times, Charles McGrath talks with Streep, Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan. You might want to go whole hog, though, and watch the all-star tribute to Streep (14'36") at the 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors which aired on Tuesday night; you can do that over at Nathaniel Rogers's Film Experience.

"Though the film pays lip service to Mrs Thatcher's analytic intelligence and tactical shrewdness, its focus is on the drama and pathos of her personal life," writes the NYT's AO Scott. "In her dotage, watched over by professionally cheery minders, she putters about in a haze of half-senile nostalgia, occasionally drawn back into the glory and pain of the past. Between flashbacks that trace her journey from modest beginnings — the phrase 'grocer's daughter from Grantham' is attached to her like a Homeric epithet — through the leadership of the Conservative Party and beyond, Thatcher is visited by the ghost of her husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), and by her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman). Carol's twin brother, Mark, unseen in the film, is far away in South Africa, his distance emphasizing his mother's loneliness and isolation…. Would the life of a male politician be rendered this way?" Actually, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar comes to Dan Callahan's mind. At any rate, it seems to Scott "that Ms Lloyd and Ms Morgan try to have it both ways, to celebrate their heroine as a feminist pioneer while showing her to be tragically unfulfilled according to traditional standards of feminine accomplishment…. You are left with the impression of an old woman who can't quite remember who she used to be and of a movie that is not so sure either."

More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NPR), Richard Corliss (Time), David Edelstein (New York), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 2/5), Karina Longworth (Voice), Paul Mazursky (Vanity Fair), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), R Kurt Osenlund (Slant, 2.5/4), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, C-), James Rocchi (Playlist, D), Dana Stevens (Slate) and Alex von Tunzelmann (Guardian).

Update, 1/3: For the New Yorker, Ben Greenman puts together a playlist of "Margaret Thatcher Pop Songs."

Updates, 1/15: "[W]hen I watched this strange tour de force of Important Acting, I was uncertain whether I was witnessing a tragedy or a farce." Martin Filler for the New York Review of Books: "Several generations ago, Helen Hayes was inevitably accorded the sobriquet of 'The First Lady of the American Theatre,' though now her saccharine portrayals would doubtless make one's teeth ache. It is easy to imagine that future generations will look back on today's credulous admiration for the undeniably gifted but habitually histrionic Streep with a similar mixture of bafflement and bemusement."

At the Guardian, there's been nearly an article a day on The Iron Lady over the past couple of weeks (and on some days, several); they're collected here.

Update, 1/16: "In the States, The Iron Lady is a movie, but in Britain it's a litmus test." Lauren Collins in the New Yorker.

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