HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
To address the very specific elephant in Hyde Park on Hudson‘s room: it’s no King’s Speech. It’s hard to avoid the comparison, because the two movies overlap in a very clear way, Hyde Park being the story of the 1939 visit King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (aka Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, but played here by Samuel West and Olivia Colman) paid to Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) in order to strengthen the bonds between England and the US and enlist America’s help in the coming war. We’re back with Bertie’s stammer and his inferiority complex when his father and brother are mentioned, and we feel like telling him: We’ve already seen this movie. You’re going to be fine.
Bill Murray doesn’t attempt an FDR imitation, probably wisely, and simply does a shrewd, sly job of playing Roosevelt as an amiable schemer, a man whose charm almost hides the fact that he always gets exactly what he wants (there’s more than a little Bill Clinton in this Roosevelt), and when Roger Michell’s film, written by Richard Nelson (and based on his play), sticks with the story of that weekend and the way each world leader gradually bonds with the other, it’s often marvelous. Unfortunately, that world-altering moment has to share the stage with the movie’s main story, which is the relationship between FDR and his “fifth or sixth” cousin Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), who becomes part of what she comes to learn is a small, matter-of-fact harem around FDR. There’s Eleanor (Olivia Williams, too beautiful and low-key for the role despite some prosthetic teeth), who is there for Franklin as a presidential partner, but who has her own private life with what FDR calls her “she-men” back in Washington. There’s also Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel), as well as talk about others, including Dorothy Schiff, publisher of the pre-Murdoch NY Post, providing the President with a rotating circle of mistresses. Margaret is the most innocent of the group, a grown woman who doesn’t smoke or drink (or, one imagines, know much of sex), who naively believes she has a uniquely intimate relationship with the President, and is heartbroken to find out she’s just one of a pool.
This story, to put it bluntly, is none too interesting, despite the skill with which Linney and Murray play their scenes together. Whenever the movie cuts from the far more fascinating saga of the King and the President, one wishes for a DVR remote to hit fast-forward. The FDR and Bertie show is the main event, and even though that story, too, could be more subtly handled –it’s jarring, after King’s Speech, to see the Queen depicted as a bit of a snobbish prig, especially when she takes what to our ears is an unforgivable jab at his stutter–it’s always entertaining, and all concerned do a good job of making clear that the world will change because of the friendship between these two men, and that small moments like the King’s willingness to sample a hot dog can have large implications.
Even when the movie is spinning its wheels in the Margaret Suckley story, it’s very smoothly made, Michell gave us Notting Hill and Morning Glory, among others, and he knows how to keep a costume drama on the move, even though most of it is set in and around the President’s Hyde Park summer home. The production design by Simon Bowles feels unobtrusively reight, and Nicolas Gaster’s editing keeps everything to a tight 95 minutes.
Hyde Park on Hudson doesn’t feel like a major Oscar title (although Murray may certainly find himself nominated for Actor). It’s too slight, and doesn’t deliver anything like the emotional wallop of King’s Speech. It’s more like a sketch than a fully satisfying drama. In Murray’s performance, though, and in the sequences where the movie forsakes the boudoir for the study, it delivers a very enjoyable footnote to history.
At this point in movie history, it’s beside the point to ask why we even need a new film version of Great Expectations when David Lean’s 1946 masterpiece still exists. (And for those who want a different slant on the story, there’s Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 modern-day revamp.) The industry feeds itself on a diet of remakes, sequels and pre-sold titles, and besides, Lean’s film is in black and white! Horrors. What is sad, though, is the thoroughly mediocre nature of Mike Newells’ picture, which misses one opportunity after another to thrill us with Dickens’ genius.
The script for the new film is by David Nicholls, responsible last year for the very problematic adaptation of his own novel One Day, and on the basis of these two projects, probably not the go-to guy for literary screenplays. He doesn’t do anything egregiously bad–there’s no distortion of the basic plotline, although unlike the Lean version, this one doesn’t use Dickens’ own revised ending–but there’s no spark to the storytelling. Incidents pass by with little dramatic momentum, and the narrative feels scattered, as though it’s been cut down from a longer version.
Much of this, of course, is also a failure of the direction and casting. Newells seems to have decided to go for a grittier (certainly more violent) version of the story, and to eschew most of the novel’s humor–but losing that means giving up so much of what makes Dickens great. Comparing rich characters like Joe Gargery, Herbert Pocket, and Wemmick to their incarnations in the Lean film, it’s as though that’s the one in color and this in black & white. Even Helena Bonham Carter is disappointing as a yonger and more matter-of-fact Miss Havisham, one who seems as likely as not to take off that old wedding dress and take the train to London at any time.
Great Expectations is such a sturdy tale that it can even survive a Pip who’s less interesting than those around him (John Mills, in the 1946 film, was fine but paled in comparison to the rest of the cast), but Newell pushes the point by casting Jeremy Irvine in the lead, a good looking young man who’s no more impressive here than he was being overshadowed by the title character in War Horse. There’s also a fatal lack of chemistry between Irvine and his Estella, played stolidly by Holliday Grainger. Without that, the throughline of the saga can’t sustain. Some of the veteran British character actors do their part. Ralph Fiennes makes a fine Magwitch, frightening and then moving, and Robbie Coltrane, cast against type as Jaggers the clever but sometimes misleading attorney, is excellent. Their roles aren’t large enough, though, to keep the entire enterprise in motion.
The movie’s choice of a more realistic tone is reflected in its look as well. John Mathieson’s photography and Jim Clay’s production design emphasize near-suffocating looks of both richness and squalor. Newells is consistent in his decisions, but it’s a disappointment to see those used to effect a lessening of one of literature’s classic tales. This new Great Expectations, unfortunately, defeats any one may have.
Oscar buzz has been trailing The Sessions (which was then called The Surrogate) since it was unveiled at Sundance in January, and with good reason. For Academy members, it doesn’t get much better than a warm “based on a true story” about someone with a serious disability who nevertheless maintains his sense of humor and purpose, offering a triumph of the human spirit along with laughs, tears, and some moderately graphic yet heartwarming sex. Fox Searchlight accordingly snapped the picture up for release during awards season, a period that more or less began in Toronto. The Sessions is such an awards engine that it’s easy to underrate, but the fact is that it’s a very good movie, superbly acted and deeper emotionally than you might expect. Searchlight had the summer’s most popular indie with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel earlier in the year, and this could well break out in the fall.
The film is based on the life story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a writer of prose and poetry who was stricken with polio in childhood, and whose limbs were for the most part useless. O’Brien had to be rolled around on a hospital gurney, and type his work painstakingly with a tool between his teeth; he could only breathe on his own for a few hours at a time, having to spend the majority of his days and nights in an iron lung. He was, however, able to function sexually, and in his late 30s, around 1990, he decided that he wanted to lose his virginity. O’Brien was a devout Catholic, and after consulting with his local priest, Father Brendan (Willam H. Macy) to see if the church would allow him to engage in what would be sex without marriage, O’Brien hired a professional sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). Some of the most interesting aspects of the film are in its depiction of Cohen Greene, who has very definite rules that differentiate what she does (that’s present-tense–according to the Q&A after the Toronto screening, she’s still doing it), from prostitution. These include a strict limit on the number of times (6) she will meet with any client, and detailed notes on each client’s problems and how they can specifically be remedied.
The heart of The Sessions is in the sequences between Hawkes and Hunt. Those scenes are beautifully written by writer/director Ben Lewin, and both actors do extraordinary work. Hawkes has been brilliant in small indies like Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene; here he literally has to act only with his face and voice, and he manages to make O’Brien a vibrant, believable character. Hunt, who’s spent quite a long time between good roles, thoroughly matches him, crisp and professional but with an increasingly strong tide of emotion, and together, they make an extremely odd situation seem very real. They certainly belong in the year’s awards conversation.
The Sessions isn’t a complicated movie. Lewin has mostly worked in television, and the movie has the flat look of a made-for-TV drama, and little visual adornment. But Lewin does take the time not just to give Macy’s Father Brendan some meaty scenes and big laughs, but to develop characters out of O’Brien’s caregivers Rod and Vera (W. Earl Brown and Moon Bloodgood, the latter particularly good in an uncharacteristic role), and Cheryl’s husband Josh (Adam Arkin). The film is an emotionally well-rounded, satisfying piece of work that largely deserves the kudos it’s gotten and will continue to collect.
It’s unfortunately not saying very much to note that Passion is the best effort Brian DePalma has managed to turn in lately. DePalma’s Redacted was one of the worst films by a major American director in recent memory (even worse than Francis Coppola’s still-unreleased Twixt, seen at last year’s Toronto)–one had to be a major DePalmite to even find it tolerable, although the movie critic establishment still includes some reviewers so invested in his career over the decades that they found ways to give it at least faint praise–and Passion is indeed better than that, as well as the awful The Black Dahlia, which preceded it. That’s still a long, painful distance from being good.
Passion is a remake of Alain Corneau’s Love Crime, which starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier in the central roles. Until the last reel, DePalma’s version (which he wrote, although “additional dialogue” is credited to Natalie Carter, who co-wrote Corneau’s film) follows the original fairly faithfully, before veering away at the end to allow him to indulge his compulsion for surveillance and dream sequences. Until then, DePalm’s main contribution is to amp up the Sapphic undertone considerably–it’s no longer “under”–both by casting the two leads with beautiful young women (Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace) instead of continuing the mentor/mentee relationship of the original, and by changing the gender and sexuality of a third major character (played by Karoline Herfurth) to a gay woman.
Set in Germany–where DePalma raised part of his financing– Passion is still the story of intra-company machinations that turn fatal. Christine (McAdams) is Isabelle’s (Rapace) boss, and although Christine presents herself as wanting to help the junior woman’s career–and suggests she’d like an even closer relationship–in practice she steals credit for Isabelle’s ideas and belittles her. Isabelle, for her part, is sleeping with Christine’s lover Dirk (Paul Anderson), and Isabelle’s assistant Dani (Herforth) has more skin (as it were) in the game than at first appeared. Push, as it must, comes to shove; in this case, it comes to a throat-slitting. In the Corneau film, we knew who the killer was, and the mystery was how that person could have done it–here, DePalma tries with limited success to make the story more of a whodunit.
Corneau’s film was distanced and focused in tone, an almost clinical examination of dissociative behavior, but that’s never been DePalma’s style. His longitme fascination with stalking and surveillance has led him to fall in love with smartphones and their video function, and they recur throughout Passion–including in the last few minutes, when the revelation that one character has been taping another for an extended period without ever being seen is downright ludicrous. Teetering on the edge of ludicrousness, of course, has been a central part of DePalma’s films, and while it can be operatically powerful in his best work, this isn’t his best work. Instead, when one of the characters here is supposed to be under the effects of pills, DePalma and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine shoot the scenes with what seems to be a parody of film noir shadows and tilted angles, pulling the viewer out of the movie to stare instead at the obtrusively fake, almost cartoon visuals.
What’s surprising about Passion is how shoddy and dull it is overall; DePalma’s craftsmanship has mostly vanished. Even before the deliberately stylized lighting kicks in, sets look soundstage-bound and ill-lit, and Pino Donaggio’s score is broad beyond any visual justification. Even DePalma’s fake-out dream sequences lack energy and distinctive style. DePalma’s never been an “actor’s director,” but he’s gotten excellent work from his stars in movies like Carrie and The Untouchables. Here, Rachel McAdams is shockingly wooden and florid, like a bad TV actress, and it’s obviously not because she lacks talent (it’s like watching Natalie Portman under the direction of George Lucas all over again). Rapace, whose role is more low-key, survives, but the other actors might as well be dubbed for all the impression they make.
If Passion didn’t have Brian DePalma’s name in the credits, you’d think it the work of a callow and not very skilled imitator. There’s still a strong enough plot for the movie to be mildly diverting, but for whatever reason, DePalma’s skills haven’t been preserved, let alone deepened, with age. The irony of Passion is that it has none at all, not even for filmmaking.