Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 25th October, 2012

Hyde Park on Hudson features Bill Murray as Franklin D Roosevelt. And it tells the story of when King George VI came to the USA in June 1939, the first time a reigning British monarch ever stepped on American soil. These things alone should be enough to make the film a slam-dunk, but it gets just about everything wrong in terms of facts, storytelling and tone. Roger Michell’s picture is proof that Bill Murray can’t save a project. I’m not sure I wanted to learn that lesson.

The film is framed – fatally, and inconsistently – through the eyes of Margaret Suckley, the sixth-cousin and confidant of FDR whose recently discovered diaries and letters suggest the pair had an affair. Hyde Park on Hudson, aggressively genteel and middlebrow as it is, barely does more than suggest this either. It has the dullest consummation scene I’ve ever seen, with its moody fade-out happening before FDR and Suckley even get in the room together. At least give them a chance to gaze in each other’s eyes.

Laura Linney is a great actress, but she’s given little to do in her role as Suckley except for silently pining and pondering so absent-mindedly that she’s constantly looking off into nowhere and falling behind the groups of people she’s walking with. If somebody had actually behaved like this in 1939, she wouldn’t have ended up curating a presidential library, she would have been diagnosed with mental retardation and be lucky to get a job as a milk maid.

The good parts of Hyde Park on Hudson involve private scenes with Murray’s FDR and Samuel West as King George, who gives Colin Firth’s work in The King’s Speech a run for its money. The young insecure king and the confident avuncular president discuss their perceptions of their offices, their personal lives and their recognition of the coming onslaught of World War II. It’s a touching bond. However, as these are private conversations and the movie is told through Suckley’s eyes, why are we even seeing them? The screenplay by TONY-award-winning playwright Richard Nelson doesn’t have an explanation and doesn’t care.

Telling the romantic story side by side with suppositions of what the world leaders were up to not only makes zero sense in terms of narrative logistics, it short-changes two potentially intriguing tales of their meaning. I guess it’s trying to be a nostalgic summer tale with incidental history, but even though it’s resolutely centred around the Roosevelts’ country estate off Hyde Park, its shots don’t embrace the location enough for us to have any emotional attachment to it.

Awkwardly pretending that the 1939 royal visit was a ramshackle affair, Hyde Park on Hudson tries to get a lot of humour out of the idea that the King and Queen-consort were unsure what to make of their countryside accommodations and a little taken aback that they would go for a picnic with the president and First Lady, and be served – shock-horror! – ‘hot dogs!’ Yes, there was a hot-dog picnic in Hyde Park, but the film forgets that most of the visit took place in Washington, D.C., and that the whole chapter was a huge public sensation. We get an amusing but unconvincing and untrue scene where George, taking a dirt-road drive out to meet the president for the first time, waves at a horse-and-cart farmer, only to be ignored.

West steals the show with his low-key performance. Olivia Colman is charmingly, amusingly precious as Elizabeth, and Olivia Williams brings the necessary fiery bluster to the role of Eleanor Roosevelt, although even in untold layers of makeup she’s clearly too young and sexy for the role. Murray, while entertaining, is a misjudged choice for FDR – his eyes have a playful, devil-may-care wit instead of the necessary internal fire, and his vocals capture FDR’s drawling speech patterns but not the whistle of his accent. These fantastic actors and the fascinating people they’re based on deserve more than being thrown into such a muddled blend of nonsensical scripting and nauseatingly pleasant, soft-edged shots.