If a movie about stammering King George VI could score a $400-million triumph at the worldwide box office and a near-sweep of the 2011 Academy Awards, then a film about George VI’s friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a lock for a billion dollars and maybe a Nobel. Another augury: impersonating a real person with a disability is the short cut to an Oscar — not just Colin Firth in The King’s Speech but Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Geoffrey Rush in Shine and Jamie Foxx in Ray. In Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray plays the President who had lost use of the lower part of his body after a bout with polio, yet rallied Americans out of the Great Depression with his optimism and charm.
Any anticipatory thrill that Oscar might strike twice vanishes about 25 mins. into the movie, when FDR takes his distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney) on a drive to a secluded spot. He places her hand on his crotch and, as he smokes a cigarette and listens to Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” on the car radio, bids her to go down on him. (If you’re wondering how Daisy pronounced her surname, it’s sookly.) At this moment in the picture’s world premiere this September at the Toronto Film Festival, the audience’s unease became audible, in titters and seat-squirming. In the lobby afterward, someone said, “He was paralyzed from the what down?”
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Richard Nelson’s script, from his 2009 BBC radio play, imagines that Daisy’s affair with FDR reached a crucial point on the same June 1939 weekend when the President and Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) were hosting a visit from George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) at the Duchess County home of Franklin’s imperious mother Sara (Elizabeth Wilson). Meant to suggest than FDR had two “special relationships” — one with the United Kingdom, the other with Daisy — Hyde Park on Hudson tries to be simultaneously high- and low-minded, an Upstairs Downstairs drama mixing affairs of state with affairs of the heart and other organs. The attempt fails; director Roger Michell’s movie is, pretty consistently, dreadful.
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Michell once made a film, Persuasion, that topped the TIME 10-best-movie list for 1995, so in memorial respect we’ll mention the few good things about Hyde Park on Hudson. The centerpiece conversation between the President and the King is well managed, matching George’s infirmity (“This goddamned stutter!”) with FDR’s (“This goddamned polio!”), and positing Roosevelt as the encouraging father figure the King never felt he had. The first British monarch to visit the U.S., George hoped to secure America’s support in a war against Nazi Germany, and this Franklin is ready to give, in an excellent exchange that could, and probably should, have stood on its own.
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Murray, in his first leading role since Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers seven years ago, is also fine. Except for the perennial upward tilt of his chin, the actor doesn’t bother impersonating FDR. Absent is the oratorical voice familiar from Fireside Chats; Murray speaks softly, with the merest whiff of a Mandarin Manhattan accent. Nor does he render any overt judgment on FDR’s sexual use of Daisy or her on-site rival Marguerite “Missy” LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel). Roosevelt was an upper-class man of his time, believing that the fealty of available ladies was his privilege. Given his physical incapacity, and his sexual estrangement from Eleanor, Franklin may also have thought he deserved the bounty of the women who worked for him. In the film’s most poignant vignette, Franklin is lifted by an aide and carried from the garden into the house. The most powerful man in the world is a helpless invalid.
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Linney has one artful moment: in the car with Franklin, when her eyes subtly telegraph Daisy’s pondering of the weightiest decision of her life. Other than that, the actress submerges herself in a character so drab, naïve and insecure that she seems to be one of those backward children that large families of the time used to exile into a religious order. In the presence of others, Daisy stammers more than George does — because she’s a woman in love. We know this from her voiceover narration, which, intentionally or not, mimics the breathless first-person prose of a Harlequin romance, both in its needless connectives (“But that’s not what happened”; “And then, one day…”) and its scorched-soul exclamations (“How I longed for him!”; “He could hide his pain from everyone — from everyone but me!“). You may start wondering when Fabio will emerge from behind a bedroom door.
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Daisy isn’t the only woman who lacks a middling IQ or the filmmakers’ sympathy. Queen Elizabeth (the current monarch’s mother) is no bright, warm Helena Bonham Carter from The King’s Speech; she’s portrayed as a starched prig who, in one of her pique fits, shouts at George to “Please stop stuttering!” So many arguments take place among guests in bedrooms with thin walls that Hyde Park on Hudson almost becomes some unseen Fawlty Towers episode about a visit from the Royals. There’s also quite a lot of talk about George’s fear of eating hot dogs, which no one has bothered to inform him are just sausages — bangers on a bun. In the movie ickiest scene, FDR says, “Daisy, would you show how to put on the mustard?”, and his mistress does so, with a lubriciousness that suggests the application of KY jelly to an engorged member.
Michell, eager to prove this is a movie, not a chamber play, sometimes has the camera run circles around the actors, which may have afforded exercise to the operator but brings no enlightenment to the viewer. Nor does the forced juxtaposing of the King’s visit and Daisy’s mooning over her affair; the two plot lines have no natural connection, no impact on each other.
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There is some resonance in the story of a President whose infirmities and infidelities were suppressed by the press; in those pre-Monica years, reporters chose to keep White House secrets. Anticipating a freer, more lurid epoch of journalism, Franklin says to George, “Can you imagine the disappointment when they find out what we really are?” That might mirror the chagrin felt by moviegoers who take a tour of Hyde Park on Hudson.