Niagara Gazette

January 15, 2013

CALLERI: Movie about FDR delivers the cringe factor

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Academy Award buzz surrounded “Hyde Park On Hudson” with special emphasis placed on a performance by Bill Murray as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Some observers were talking up his chances for a best actor Oscar nomination, but most of these folks were in his circle of comic friends. He did not get nominated. His impersonation of President Roosevelt is a little bit off; never getting the voice right. Also, the story told in the movie works against Murray. Sycophants aside, rational people seeing this film should recognize it for what it is, one very strange amalgam of history. Weird, smarmy, and tonally off the rails.

The movie’s main focus is fuzzy, and if you carefully examine what’s going on, it seems to be about this question: Will the King George VI, the stuttering Royal from the film “The King’s Speech,” eat a hot dog at a picnic at Hyde Park, the Roosevelt family’s summer home in New York state? Yes, you read that right, a hot dog.

George, a goofy sort, also known as Bertie, never expected to be king, but his brother Edward jumped ship to marry the woman of his dreams, the American socialite Wallis Simpson. History records that George was easily frightened and a bit of a dolt. That he would lead Great Britain through World War II is ironic, to say the least.

George VI and his wife Elizabeth (the lady we would come to know as the Queen Mum) were the first British Royal couple to ever visit the United States. They arrived in 1939 to ask President Roosevelt for America’s support in resisting Hitler’s military and political moves across Europe.

But anyone watching “Hyde Park On Hudson” should ponder a major plot contrivance. Isn’t the bigger story, as seen in the movie, the fact that Roosevelt was having sexual relations with his cousin, Margaret Stuckley?

I don’t care how many times removed she was, she was still the President’s cousin, and he was having an affair with her. To me, that’s the headline. According to the film, he was also enjoying sex with his secretary. Meanwhile, his wife Eleanor spent much of her time at Hyde Park hanging out with a community of women making quilts, or something woven.

Roosevelt was a man stricken with polio, who used a wheelchair and often needed to be carried by Secret Service agents. The press conspired to keep the details of his polio from the public. However, Roosevelt was still robust in the summer of 1939 (he was only 57), a smart man with a vibrant mind that was completely engaged and capable of battling Congress to get the United States out of its economic doldrums. History reveals that he was generally a happy guy, boisterously greeting visitors, and eager to spread his special brand of enthusiasm. The phrase “hail fellow, well met” perfectly fits the President.

In his history of World War II, Winston Churchill wrote about soldiers carrying the President if there were no wheelchair ramps and how Roosevelt humorously deflected any potential embarrassment at seeing so important a figure being carried in the arms of another man. In the movie, we find ourselves watching a physically weak person, not the man Churchill and others saw.

The film depicts the President as a soft-spoken, randy old coot. A constantly winking, perverted codger who looks to be old and feeble. His preferred method of enticing his cousin Margaret into sitting closer to him was to show her his postage stamp collection. Whether any of this is true or not is subject to debate.

Margaret, is played by Laura Linney as a drab, dish rag of a woman; always shy and frumpily-dressed. As her relationship enlivens her life, she blossoms a little, only to have her spirit crushed by something she discovers. Linney is good, but ill-served by the lackluster screenplay. It turns out that Miss Stuckley kept copious notes and journals, all of which were found under her bed after she died in 1991. Was the sex a fantasy? Were the diaries a carefully crafted fiction written by a mousy spinster? Who knows? And frankly, as creepily depicted in the movie, who really cares?

There are some things that I liked about “Hyde Park On Hudson.” It looks wonderful thanks to beautiful cinematography from Lol Crawley and nice production values. Olivia Williams as a sarcastic and independent Eleanor, and Elizabeth Wilson as Roosevelt’s mother (giddily smitten with the Royals), are both delightful. There’s a wonderful comic scene wherein George VI (Samuel West) and Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), both of them quite good, see their shabby chic Hyde Park bedroom and discover framed cartoons on the wall from the 1700s depicting British Redcoats being routed.

Director Roger Michell, a South African who lives in Great Britain and has made one stand-out film out of ten (“Notting Hill”), has crafted a picture that lacks common sense and perspective. Richard Nelson, an American, has written a weak script filled with double entendres if you want to fully analyze the mildly amusing words being spoken.

As history, “Hyde Park On Hudson” is a fractured tale of whimsy that cloys because of the sexual undertones. I’ll let you discover, if you wish, whether or not George and Elizabeth eat their hot dogs.

 

 

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.