Netflix UK film review: The Most Hated Woman in America
Ivan Radford | On 26, Mar 2017
Director: Tommy O’Haver
Cast: Melissa Leo, Brandon Mychal Smith, Juno Temple
Watch The Most Hated Woman in America online in the UK: Netflix UK
Melissa Leo is one of those actresses you’d watch in anything. The thought of her sinking her teeth into the meaty part of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, once branded The Most Hated Woman in America, then, is hugely enticing. She doesn’t disappoint. The same can’t always be said of the rest of the film.
Madalyn, for those who haven’t been raised on American religious history (most of Netflix’s UK subscribers, you suspect), was an outspoken atheist whose campaign to have prayer removed from schools and the words “under God” taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance earned her a cover in Life Magazine, complete with that moniker, in 1964.
This Netflix biopic pounces on the nickname, but ends up adopting a similarly sensationalist tone that makes for occasionally frustrating viewing. There’s a lot of potential here to be mined for a drama. There’s the story of the mother who rose up against the Christian-infused community around her. The tale of her son, Bill (Vincent Kartheiser), who ironically ended up joining the Religious Freedom Coalition, which fought for religion to be re-introduced to education. The news of Madalyn’s kidnapping by a former employee. And, of course, the nature of her death.
We jump into events with the latter, as we see her dragged into a room, hooded, by an unseen captor. Nobody’s much bothered about the disappearance of her, or her son and granddaughter (Juno Temple). But one of her fans notices that she’s absent and contacts a local news reporter (Adam Scott), who leaps at the chance to cover a serious news story in a town where local news centres around bus timetables. His investigations give the film an excuse to flashback to events throughout Madalyn’s life, chronicling her achievements – most of which involve angering more and more people.
Leo is superbly foul as the rude, unapologetic atheist, seemingly at her happiest when being repelled by others. There’s a wonderful ambiguity to her, criticising religion for being a money-grabbing sham, only to form her own movement and cash in on donations herself – she may have traded in controversy and publicity, but she dealt behind closed doors in cold, hard cash. One entertaining montage sees Leo and a fab Peter Fonda stage a roadshow as a devout atheist and a revered chaplain, debating in increasingly heated showdowns to a paying crowd.
It’s credit to the movie that it treads such tricky territory, refusing the urge to plant its feet firmly on either side of the fence – in another film, Madalyn could easily be portrayed as a straight hero or villain. You suspect that any nuance is more due to Melissa’s performance, though, than the script. Co-written by O’Haver and Irene Turner, it hops between its subplots like it does the decades, never quite settling on a compelling central thread: the reveal that David Waters (Josh Lucas), who knows about Madalyn’s off-shore accounts containing millions, is her kidnapper happens early on; attempts at her life during her rise to fame are laughed off and forgotten; and family disputes are barely explored.
The result is sadly uneven, boasting nicely realised period details from O’Haver, but never quite adding depth to what feels like a string of sketches, all competing for screentime. While it’s a pleasure to see Mad Men’s Pete Campbell in the background, Bill seems like he’s shoehorned in from a different film. Even the journalistic uncovering of the abduction would fare better as a standalone feature. It falls to Leo to hold it together – and she does so with relish. “I wouldn’t spit in your ass if your guts were on fire!” she snaps at David, during one argument. It’s hard to dislike a movie that allows her to let rip like that – you certainly get the impression that Madalyn being the key to her own story’s success is just the way she’d like it. But while this won’t be the most hated of netflix’s original films, it won’t be the most loved either.
The Most Hated Woman in America is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.