Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 19, 2012 1:55 pm 
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Monarch and president: just folks, insecure and naughty

In this cuddly and blunt-spoken romp in 20th-century American history we visit FDR & Co (including wife and three lovers) in the Thirties, before the war, at the estate he liked to summer at, owned by his mother (Elizabeth Wilson). We arrive at this location for the comically momentous occasion when the King and Queen of England come to visit, seeking financial aid and promises of military support in the coming war, and receiving in return cocktails and hot dogs. This could very well be a play, despite the rollicking drives on grassy country roads in an open car by Roosevelt (Bill Murray), driving his latest "companion" and sixth cousin Daisy Stuckley (Laura Linley), but the cars and the houses and the accoutrements bring things to glossy life. Like The King's Speech, of which it could be seen as a marketable extension, this is a portrait of the English royals (as well as the elected Yank version) that balances unflattering with appealing. FDR may be a philanderer and a drunkard, but he's honest and funny and brave in dealing with his disability. And "Bertie" and the Queen may be bumbling and insecure, but they're plucky and flexible. This movie, however, is just an anecdote, lacking the grandeur, fluency, or triumph-over-adversity appeal that made The King's Speech a gloriously entertaining mainstream movie and a big winner at the box office and awards ceremonies.

A key for audiences will be how well they accept the gimmick casting of tongue-in-cheek actor Bill Murray in the historical role of FDR. And this versatile comedian-actor performs well. Though the excuse is that this is a private FDR and not the public one, there is none of the resonance and authority of FDR the world leader. Nor has Olivia Williams the oddity and conviction of Eleanor. As the stuttering King George VI, Samuel West (the son of Prunnella Scales) is rather good, again like Colin Firth, but without the charisma, managing to convey the sense of being a stutterer while still delivering a goodly number of lines. Another key is whether Daisy, whose voiceover narration runs through the whole thing, is an appealing enough character, despite the fact that the royal visit, the semi-catastrophic dinner, and the comical picnic the next day overwhelm her personal story. One of the interests of the screenplay by Richard Nelson for modern audiences, particularly young ones if any show up for this movie, is to see a vastly different presidency, where the head of state could wave the Secret Service car away and drive off with his new girlfriend to get a blowjob in a field seen only by the birds and the bees, and he could be carried around from room to room or hobble on crutches and never have that shown by photographers (just as they never delved into his extra-marital affairs or his wife's lesbian tendencies). Hyde Park on Hudson is a good, if blatant, depiction of the safe disconnect in those freer, more privacy-respecting days between private secret and public façade.

Though this tale is made for screen not stage, there is a sometimes excessive reliance on business -- cigarette holders (and the lighting and passing around of cigarettes), cocktails and cocktail shakers, magnifying glass and stamp collection, and cars. The royals are English so, okay, they must arrive in a long black Rolls (I guess the official royal car, the Daimler, wasn't available stateside?), but how many times must we pile back into FDR's sporty convertible? it seems at times that nobody has anything of importance to say, except to reassure each other that it's all going to go alright. This is, in part, a dramatization of Americans' and Englishmen's mutual uneasiness, particularly with regard to the monarchy, its trappings, and its terms of exaggerated respect, which Franklin's mother is keen on and Eleanor snubs. In the end this is no more interesting than the Queen's and King's confidential debate about whether being served hot dogs is an insult or just a convenient thing to have when eating out of doors.

Murray performs creditably with restraint, but the fact that he has performed in films by the likes of Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson reminds us that he can be used to far subtler effect than happens with the Notting Hill director Roger Michell, who as Peter Debruge says in his Variety review "has made a career blending high class with coarse elements," so that "same off-color tendency creeps into what might have been a broad comedy of manners." Hyde Park on Hudson serves "coarser motives." That's the truth of the matter: there's something icky about it, and it's neither witty nor profound.

Hyde Park on Hudson, whose excuse for being included in the New York Film Festival may have to be attributed to its association with New York, got its debut at Telluride and got an additional springboard at Toronto. It's a broad audience-pleaser if without the wide appeal of The King's Speech. It's scheduled for early December release in the US (Dec. 7, limited) and Feb. 1 in the UK and Feb. 27 in France.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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