Hyde Park on Hudson & Silence in the House of God

March 30, 2013
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Hard on the heels of Lincoln comes another movie about a great American President. But if Steven Spielberg seemed to be sending a message to Barack Obama about being steadfast and determined, it’s hard to know what Richard Michell is telling us about Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson.

Allowing for its Spielbergisms, Lincoln was a powerful, stirring film about politics, showing how it can sometimes be necessary to adopt ignoble means to achieve a just result. The fascination of the story lay in the interplay between idealism and pragmatism, as Lincoln and his allies pulled every string to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which would render slavery illegal.

In Hyde Park on Hudson, we meet a benevolent, libidinous FDR, who plays host in his upstate retreat, to the young King George VI and his wife, Elizabeth. The plan is to reassert the ties that exist between the United States and Great Britain as Europe teeters on the brink of the Second World War. If the King is to have Roosevelt’s support he must be introduced to the American people in a suitably sympathetic manner. The weekend in the country is an exercise in public relations, played out as a comedy of manners.

The twist with this film is that politics runs a distant second to the story of the relationship between FDR and his shabby-genteel sixth cousin, Daisy Suckley. The movie begins in 1935 with Daisy being summoned to the Roosevelt family home, Hyde Park, for the vague purpose of distracting the President from his stressful responsibilities. Little by little, their friendship becomes more intimate, being sealed by an amorous interlude in the front seat of the President’s car, as it stands parked in a field. This scene, though handled discreetly, is rather startling.

Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, was known for her Sapphic inclinations, and many believed her lack of interest led her husband to look elsewhere for affection. This film suggests it was FDR who strayed first, being undaunted by the inconvenience of having both legs paralysed by polio. Indeed, if there is a message to be taken away from this movie it may be that disabled people can lead sex lives that are no less disorderly than those of their able-bodied counterparts.

Daisy’s attachment to the President grows until she is stunned to learn she is only one of his liaisons. In a flash she drops the image of FDR as a sympathetic cripple, and sees him as a heartless seducer.

According to the historians much of this is nonsense. It is accepted that Daisy had a long-running affair with the President but the story has been fictionalised and romanticised beyond recognition. The problems begin with the characterisation. Bill Murray’s Roosevelt is a charming patriarch, but apparently very different from the man himself, who had an aristocratic bearing that belied his disability.

Laura Linney’s Daisy is a colourless figure who seems to drift passively from one encounter to the next. The real Daisy was employed as an archivist, but the fictional one simply hangs around like an extra awaiting her turn. None of this can be blamed on Murray and Linney, who do their best with the lines they are given. At least Olivia Williams’s Eleanor comes across as an abrasive, dynamic personality.

The most cloying roles are those of the King and Queen. Even though this film is a British production, and Roger Michell’s previous credits include ye olde English concoctions such as Notting Hill (1999), the royal couple are sketched in as upper class twits who would be at home in a Monty Python sketch

Samuel West has an uphill battle having to do George VI all over again, so soon after Colin Frith’s portrayal in The King’s Speech (2010). Olivia Colman’s Elizabeth is also distinctly different to the Helena Bonham Carter version.

Although it was an overrated film, The King’s Speech avoided the kind of P.G. Wodehouse caricatures we meet on this occasion. In one scene the King gets out of his car in order to wave at a grim faced farmer, who duly ignores him. This is a poor gag that should have been omitted.

At no stage does this film become actively bad, it simply trundles along in a mild, agreeable way. The major leitmotif, for about half the story, is the prospect of King George eating a hotdog to show the American public he is a regular guy. There is an unsubtle, rather vulgar suggestion that FDR has done the same thing to the King, in political terms, as he did to Daisy on a personal level. It involves a sausage.

One interesting aspect of the story is the friendly relationship that exists between FDR and the press, who never dwell on his disability, and agree not to photograph the great leaders in their bathing suits after they have been for a swim. Think fondly of those days next time you see a picture of Tony Abbott in his budgie smugglers.

Possibly the most memorable moment in this watchable but flawed movie, comes when Roosevelt talks about the women he has seduced by showing them his stamp album. Forget about the polio, this is a thought that  should make every nerdy teenager imagine their hobby as a passport to Eros.

Documentary maker, Alex Gibney, has the knack of taking a single case and using it to illuminate a problem of global proportions. In Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), he detailed the fall of that fabled American mega-corporation as a prelude to the greater firestorm which would engulf Wall Street and the world.

In Maxima Mea Culpa: Silence in the House of God, he examines the story of five deaf men who launched a campaign to expose a priest who had systematically molested them while they boarded at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It doesn’t take long to establish Father Murphy’s guilt. He done it, alright. The bigger issue is the way the Catholic Church would deal with the accusations against the pedophile priest, and with the wider problem of systemic sexual abuse of minors. From Milwaukee the story expands to take in the entire United states, then Europe, before coming home to roost in the Vatican.

The most damning indictments of the Church come from within its ranks. Richard Sipes, a former monk, who conducted an investigation into the practise of celibacy, states: “The system of the Catholic clergy, to which I have great respect, and to which I have given many years of my life, selects, cultivates, protects, defends – and produces sexual abusers.”

Shortly after his ordination, Patrick J. Wall, was given the job of putting out fires for the church. He travelled around the United States dealing with cases of sexual abuse, finding that he was not expected to provide pastoral care, only pay-offs and cover-ups. He left the priesthood when he realised that certified offenders remained in the system and were often reassigned to a new parish.

One of the stumbling blocks is the problem of clericalism – the tendency to put priests on a pedastle and believe they can do no wrong. Then there are the dictates of Canon Law, which sees the dignity of the Church as more important than the rights of victims. The obscene irony is that sexual predators who would be regarded as criminals in everyday life are defended as upholders of the Christian faith and brought into close contact with the most vulnerable members of society.

The film’s revelation about the Church’s handling of abuse cases is that every letter, every accusation sent to the Vatican ended up on the desk of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the latter-day descendent of the Inquisition – Ratzinger knew more about sexual abuse than anyone in the Church. Although the recently retired Pope was reputedly horrified by these stories, he still accepted that his first priority was to defend the sanctity of the Church rather than provide justice to those whom the Vatican’s servants had betrayed.

As the story unfolds, Gibney outlines two further cases  that do the Church no honour. There is Tony Walsh, an Irish priest known for his Elvis Presley impersonations and his pedophilic activities, who was given the softest treatment by the Vatican in defiance of the wishes of his local Cardinal. Next there is Marciel Degollado, a high Vatican official and champion fund-raiser, famed for his contacts with figures such as Carlos Slim, Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum. He was also renowned for his activities as a sexual predator with powerful protectors in the Vatican hierarchy.

The documentary is a testament to the courage and determination of the five deaf men, and an awful comment on the Catholic Church, which is still stumbling through this mess, showing little sensitivity towards victims. In Australia, Cardinal Pell has revealed himself to be a distinguished representative of the status quo, as dictated by the Vatican.

It’s a bad look, and it leads one to reflect on recent political decisions that refuse to recognise ethics classes as an alternative to religious instruction. On the evidence of this film it seems that ethics and doctrinaire Catholicism are polar opposites. Although we need not believe in God to discern right from wrong, when those who speak in God’s name put their own image ahead of human suffering, it appears that the impersonal logic of the institution has usurped the most basic sense of morality.

 

Hyde Park on Hudson, UK, rated M, 94 mins

Silence in the House of God: Mea Maxima Culpa, USA, rated M, 102 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 30, 2013