Friday, January 25, 2013

‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ (2012) directed by Roger Michell, 13th January 2013

‘The Woman that Wanked off the President’ would have been a better title.  ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ tells you almost nothing about what’s to come, namely a soft-focus, dreamily serious historical drama about the woman whose job it was to wank off President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray).

Set in 1939, the film revolves around the visit of King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) to Roosevelt’s private residence in upstate New York.  Europe is on the brink of war, and the two have made an unprecedented trip to visit Roosevelt in the hope of form a relationship between the United Kingdom and the USA as allies against the Axis powers.  This pivotal moment in world history is told from the perspective of the shy Daisy (Laura Linney), the Presidents fifth cousin, a member of his staff, and the person whose responsibility is administering handjobs to the Commander in Chief.

Bill Murray as FDR
The film is drenched in summery, pastoral imagery.  It’s languorously paced, with a soporific, dreamy voiceover from Linney throughout much of the film.  It’s almost a bit too obvious to compare it to ‘The King’s Speech’, but stylistically and historically it covers some very similar ground, albeit far less successfully.

The problems of the film all boil down to the wanking off scene.  You can just tell that director Roger Michell is painfully aware that this element sticks out like a sore thumb in his highbrow glossy drama, and he does his level best to camouflage it as best he can.  It takes place in a field full of gently swaying flowers, the sun illuminates it like something out of a postcard, the camera angles are tasteful and the performances from Murray and Linney can’t really be faulted.  But, for all that, this is an old bloke being given a hand job in a softly creaking car.  You can only class it up so much. 

Bill Murray is the one thing that prevents this film tipping completely over into creepy territory.  He’s a charismatic, loveable and randy FDR, Murray’s natural ease with people shines through in all his interactions.  He may the most powerful man in the world, but still knows how to have some fun.  He plays the role as charmingly as he can, and with Murray’s considerable talent this is pretty damn charming.

Laura Linney as Daisy. 
But even Bill Murray can’t prevent the film being feeling deeply strange.  We are expected to take it in our stride that a horny FDR is in the habit of randomly summoning his distant relatives to his private country home, essentially to audition them for the role of Presidential wanker-offer.  The script is at pains to repeatedly emphasise that Daisy is FDRs fifth cousin, but as far as I’m concerned as soon as you introduce the word cousin into the equation there’s a faint and unpleasant whiff of incest to proceedings.

What makes matters even worse is the creepy way in which it happens.  Daisy is bizarrely naïve for someone in their late 30s or early 40s.  She's weirdly virginal and doesn’t seem to have had any romantic experience, this innocence makes the scenes preceding the first wanking session really quite creepy.  FDR waves away his police escort, driving off into the woods, Daisy asking in confusion where they’re going.  When the reach a scenic spot, FDR stares into the middle distance smoking, and gently guides Daisy’s hand into his lap.  She looks shocked and confused, but then gets on with the task at hand.  She doesn’t really have much of a choice.  There has to be better ways of setting the scene, if you make Bill Murray (Bill Murray!) seem like a creepy sexual predator then you’re doing something wrong.

Receiving the Royal Family, George VI (Samuel West) and Olivia Colman (Olivia Colman)
This bizarre half of the plot takes absolutely forever to link thematically with the visit of the Royal Family, and then proceeds to do it in an incredibly confusing way.  These segments of the film really do feel like a bargain basement version of ‘The King’s Speech’.  The stiffness and over-mannered nature of the Royals is emphasised at every turn, with the effect that they seem like caricatures.  Samuel West fails to capture any of the vulnerability that Colin Firth brought to the role, and Olivia Colman, generally a brilliant actress, gets to spend the entire film looking terrified.  I know the film is trying to play up the differences between the aristocracies of the USA and UK but they seem so confused and lost that they might as well be the Martian Royal Family.

The two strands of the plot finally link up when our Royals are served hot dogs at a picnic, an event portrayed as the lynchpin of the entire visit.  FDR summons Daisy over to the table, and as the King shakily proffers his quivering, pink sausage, FDR tells an awkward Daisy to spread some mustard on it, which takes place in lascivious close up.  Are we to presume that this hot dog the King is about to suggestively eat is a symbolic of FDR’s dick?  All signs point to yes, but what the hell does this mean?!

The gang hangs out.
I am genuinely boggled.  Perhaps the handjobs are FDRs way of relaxing, and he wants the King to relax so he gives him a handjob substitute in the form of a delicious hotdog?  Maybe this is a symbol of Daisy wanking off George VI behind the scenes unseen by the audience?  Could the suggestive way in which the King eats the phallic sausage be a point on the unequal power balance between the UK and USA?  It’s frustrating, there’s something happening here, but I don’t know what it is!  Fortunately I don’t much care.

The cherry on top of this muddled and confusing cake is that the whole film is predicated on the US coming to the United Kingdom’s aid in World War II.  George VI desperately explains that he’s seen cities bombed during the Spanish Civil War, and is terrified of the same thing happening to Britain.  The film ends in triumph – a ‘special relationship’ has been forged between our two nations.  Everything is going to be fine from now on!  Except the film is set in 1939 and the USA didn’t enter the war in Europe until 1942.  In the meantime Britain's cities got practically bombed flat.  


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