Hyde Park on Hudson is an interesting movie in a number of ways. It has been royally hosed by some critics and lauded by others, kind of a love it or hate it experience in a way. It is kind of cluttered and strangely paced, to be sure, but it also tilts the historical genre on its side in a way that cheekily explores its subject without losing an ounce of veneration.
It concerns the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the visit of King George VI and the Queen Consort Elizabeth, the country estate in Hyde Park, and the president’s evolving relationship with his sixth cousin Margaret Suckley. At times, this Roger Michell-directed flick seems to have a lot of balls in the air (so to speak).
Bill Murray stars as FDR. The movie opens in the months before World War II, right around the time the president was looking into ways to support the British. He was spending time at his country estate in Hyde Park, New York, and was growing closer romantically and sexually to Suckley (Laura Linney). As she evolves into his mistress, she becomes wary of his relationship with his wife (Olivia Williams) and his other womanizing ways.
Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to welcome King George VI (Samuel West) and the Queen Consort Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) to Hyde Park. The first visit by a British monarch to the US, FDR hopes to demonstrate his support for the UK on the brink of war. But the monarchs are of the stuffy sort, with the stuttering king lacking confidence and Elizabeth somewhat justifiably wary of hot dogs.
Hyde Park on Hudson really is a comedy of manners. While Spielberg’s Lincoln took a political giant and turned in a procedural thriller of sorts, Michell’s film takes a political giant and turns in a Renoir-esque farce lined with historical context and all sorts of diddling. The results are middling, but the performances are solid and some scenes are absolute dynamite.
The best scene involves Murray’s FDR and West’s King George talking privately over drinks and cigarettes. Roosevelt is far from the powerful World War II leader that history fondly remembers and Murray wisely draws out the more vulnerable, somewhat sleazy side labouring under polio. Bertie is a stutterer in need of some confidence. When the two men get together to curse their conditions, the two actors make magic happen.
Hyde Park on Hudson is not your basic historical film. It is somewhat weird, somewhat disjointed, somewhat poorly paced. But at the same time, it’s incredibly humane and tenderly comic. It uses Margaret (also known as Daisy) as our “in” and coaxes the audience into the rustic locale in New York just in time for a well-photographed picnic sure to confuse the Brits.
Any film that rightly uses a hot dog as a climax (so to speak) is bound to be greeted with more than a few cocked eyebrows, but Michell knows his stuff more than he’s credited for. The lifeblood of his Hyde Park on Hudson eases through the veins lightly and, despite the looming threat of war and despair, FDR is at ease and in control when at his getaway. He, like many presidents, wishes he could spend more time away from the fray.
So while Lincoln gave audiences a rousing but surprisingly subtle vision of a president at work on something vital, Hyde Park on Hudson offers a restrained and somewhat cheeky vision of a president at work on something less obviously vital. Repairing the relationship between the United States and Britain may not seem like the Lord’s work to many Americans, but a handjob is another story altogether.