Monday, January 21, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson

Alternate Title:  The Handjob that Saved the World

One sentence synopsis:  Franklin D. Roosevelt hosts the King and Queen of Britain at the cusp of World War 2, while carrying on several affairs.

Things Havoc liked: Bill Murray is a better actor than most people realize, I suspect.  While his comedic roles are well known to anyone my age, his more recent work either in the semi-comedic Lost in Translation or the outright bizarre Wes Anderson films (Rushmore, Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom) has demonstrated decent range beyond the Ghostbusters and Caddyshacks of yesteryear.  As such, his take on FDR, a man he does, it must be admitted, somewhat resemble, was something I was rather eager to see.  Though Murray does not sound much like the quintessential New Yorker, his portrayal of FDR is refined and restrained, a man surrounded by powerful personalities (most of them women) who deals with them by remaining aloof and slightly detached, but never impolite, or even unwelcoming.  Some have described him as bland or boring, but I've known people such as this, people who retain control of their lives in demanding circumstances by simply floating above it all, and his calm performance anchors the movie in place.

Hyde Park is about the 1939 visit of the King and Queen of Great Britain to the United States, and more specifically to Hyde Park, FDR's country house in the Hudson River in New York.  The visit was an important one in many ways, as it formed the very first stages of the transatlantic relationship that would eventually crush Nazism, form NATO, and last into the present day, and Samuel West and Olivia Colman, playing the King and Queen respectively, underscore quite well just what the stakes are.  Newly crowned as a replacement for his ne'er-do-well brother Edward, and still visibly uncomfortable with his position as King, George is here with his hat in hand, and he knows it, and so does everyone else.  His wife, the future Queen Mother, is hyper-sensitive to the supposed hate that the Americans bear for the British in general and the Royal Family in specific.  In a telling rant early on, she rails against Americans as a collection of "Irishmen, Italians, Germans, and Jews" all of whom are in her mind implacably hostile to the British.  Yet in the conversations with Roosevelt, we can see the nervous beginnings of the relationship that will come, as the older Roosevelt offers his advice, gently though it is couched, to the King who will soon be leading his people into war.  The sequences dealing with this are the highlights of the film.

Things Havoc disliked: If only they were the focus of the film.

The movie is really not about FDR, nor the King of England, nor World War II nor diplomacy nor any of the other interesting topics it brings up.  The movie is about a woman named Margaret Suckley, played by Laura Linney, and her whimsical pining for FDR, her lover.

Yes, in the grand tradition of what appears to be every President who ever lived, FDR had mistresses.  Several, according to this movie, at the same time, all of whom knew one another and formed a sort of coterie around him.  Elanor Roosevelt, portrayed here as a lesbian, was apparently aware of this and accepted it, and they were all expected to live happily together as one extended family.  It is this that the movie is about, and as this is a much less interesting subject than the previous element, we are therefore left waiting for the movie to actually go back to the reason why this subject was considered relevant for the making of a film at all.  Worse still, no effort is made to liven the material with anything at all.  Idyllic drives through the countryside and slices of life in rural New York are intercut with soporific voiceovers by Linney in which she looks longingly into the screen and describes her frustration with having to "share" Franklin with the others, though gosh darn it, she can get over it if she has to.  Words cannot describe how slow these sections of the film are, as the filmmakers seem to think we care as to whether or not Margaret is insulted that Franklin didn't invite her to a diplomatic dinner with the King more than we care about the dinner itself and the weighty issues at work around it.  But never fear, every time Franklin so much as mildly annoys somebody he will no doubt invite them in and apologize, because we can't have anything going wrong in this perfect little world of ours.

Final thoughts:   I really don't know what else I can say about this movie. It takes a decent rendition of FDR in an interesting moment in his enormous presidency and then proceeds to hide the entire affair behind the maddening notion that we are actually here for whimsical reflections on a woman we've not heard of, or the shocking revelation that FDR might have had mistresses. The film is not poorly made, but the experience of viewing it is more chore than pleasure, and while FDR definitely does deserve to have a great movie made about some element of his works and life, this one is nowhere near what the doctor ordered.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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