Review: Hyde Park on Hudson


[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of Hyde Park on Hudson.]

There’s a funny dilemma in Hyde Park on Hudson. It’s June 1939, just months before World War II. Queen Elizabeth and King George VI are going to meet Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to discuss the escalating situation in Europe. This is the first time British royals have come to the United States. The pressure is getting to stuttering George, and it’s cracking Elizabeth’s polite veneer. Meanwhile, as the monarchs near Roosevelt’s Springwood estate, there’s a question of propriety. Should a good host serve British royalty cocktails? Maybe it’s too vulgar, too American? Does the fate of the 20th century rest in a decent martini?

Moments like these are funny because of that mix of high stakes and low stakes. It’s the absurd way that the weight of history makes you laugh in sympathy. They’re nervous because everything matters more than it should. There’s a wonderfully light touch to these scenes, and these are the places where Hyde Park on Hudon is its best. It also gives Bill Murray room to cut an award-show clip (though more on his performance later).

There’s another dilemma in Hyde Park on Hudson: what to do about Daisy, the cousin Franklin’s been having an affair with. Screenwriter Richard Nelson didn’t quite figure that one out. Like a bad cocktail, the proportions are off.

Hyde Park on Hudson
Director: Roger Mitchell
Rating: R
Release Date: December 7th, 2012

The inclusion of Daisy (Laura Linney) fits thematically in a film about high stakes and low stakes. (Her real name was Margaret Suckley, but everyone called her Daisy.) She’s of different means than Franklin. Rather than enjoy the wealth of the immediate Roosevelt family, Daisy lives modestly and cares for her aunt in upstate New York. She’s called to meet Franklin and keep him company at Springwood one day. Franklin’s got a headache dealing with the Great Depression. This first meeting brings us through the bustle of Springwood, converted into a sort of summer White House, into the solitude of Roosevelt’s study. We first see Franklin behind the desk massaging the spot between his eyes just over his pince-nez.

This first meeting is awkward in an accurate way. Think arranged playdates between two kids who’ve never really hung out. The light in Franklin’s study is hazy, fusty — the back room of a library’s special collections. Every creak and shift seems magnified, and all they can manage is faltering small talk, a little coffee, and a flip through FDR’s stamp album. This companionship continues and turns romantic, which is a bit of speculation based on actual surviving correspondence between them. Lucy Mercer was FDR’s secretary and mistress, and was even with the President on the day he died. Daisy may or may not have been the President’s other mistress (she was Franklin’s fifth cousin, so we’re well out of Hapsburg territory), so the film plays up the possibility for drama.

Daisy’s the narrator of the film, but the film isn’t told from her point of view. She couldn’t be privy to the personal interactions between Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), nor would she know what Franklin said to King George (Samuel West). At that point it seemed like the film tried to have it both ways. It wants to be a story about high and low stakes as part of world history, and a story about the emotional life of the President’s other woman. There’s potential for a good movie in each of these, but mixing them together dilutes the potency of both. It turns Hyde Park on Hudson from an effortlessly charming film into a stuffy, calculated bit of Oscar bait.

If anything, the performances are all solid. Even though Daisy as a character and a narrator hampers the film, Linney is great as always. She’s spurned, she’s confused; she’d be sympathetic in a movie where her character didn’t get in the way, and in that movie she’d be written like a capable adult. Williams (who previously co-starred with Murray in Rushmore) plays a great Eleanor Roosevelt, communicating the charm and strength that broke through her homeliness. Colman and West are fine as the Queen and King, and their portrayal is just right for the film’s lighthearted humor. They’re not on the same level as Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, but they work.

Of course, there’s Murray, and he’s good. The Roosevelt mannerisms are there, like that toothy open-mouth smile and the charming light in the eyes. I don’t think he’s FDR, though. The problem is the line delivery and the voice. Listening to FDR’s speeches, there is a loud, clear locution. Every word is as polished and distinct as a note born from a cornet. Murray’s delivery is more like Cary Grant than FDR, and many times he slips into just being Bill Murray with a little accent thrown into the gruff mumble. It’s a fine bit of acting, especially his interactions with the royals, but if we’re gauging a performance as a historical figure on the accuracy of the impersonation, this doesn’t seem award-worthy.

That’s the difficulty of historical impersonations. How much can you communicate with the body language, how much with the voice, how much simply by conveying the idea of a person? Williams’s Eleanor Roosevelt is more successful in how she embodies the real person, or at least recreates the idea of the person. Maybe the gold standard in the last decade was Cate Blanchett doing a stunning, full-of-moxie Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. It could be that the idea of Bill Murray the person gets in the way of the idea of Franklin Roosevelt the person. One personality dominates if the other isn’t fully on display. Some lines are delivered in that perfect, brassy sound, though they tend to be the lines delivered when FDR is shouting off camera from another room.

Both the drama and the comedy hinges on small interactions. An unstated question about the decor of a guest room is just like an unstated question about international leadership. It should say something that the interest I had in Hyde Park on Hudson wasn’t if America will aid Great Britain. (The facts of history help downplay that bit of drama.) Instead the interest is in how the royals will react to a hot dog picnic. They seem to be revolted by the idea. Queen Elizabeth is busy decoding possible symbols of disrespect. The night of the visit is restless from anticipation — not just for a possible international embarrassment over hot dogs, but for the weeks, months, and years ahead as Hitler’s menace grows. Again, it’s the absurd high and low of history that Hyde Park on Hudson does well.

But we come back to the dilemma of Daisy because she’s the reason Hyde Park on Hudson falters. For a middle-aged woman, her ideas about love are too lovey-dovey. She seems to believe she can have the President all to herself, not thinking about the controversy it would cause or the nature of their relationship. She thinks of the world in terms of fairy tales — FDR her dashing prince, and their summers together at Springwood like years spent in their own little kingdom. There’s room in the movie for manners and small stakes because they touch on the gravity of history. There’s no room for fairy tale thinking, though, in history or in complicated adult lives.

To put it another way, a hot dog picnic is more interesting than Daisy’s story, and that’s not just because her character is written like a lovesick little girl. It’s not that the stakes are too low when it comes to affairs and love, because the film shows how low stakes are just tendrils that come from the high stakes. Daisy’s stakes are too petty, too self-absorbed, too naive to be taken seriously, too personal to be considered comic. Someone put saccharine in this martini.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.