REVIEW: Hyde Park on Hudson [2012]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: December 7th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Focus Features
Director(s): Roger Michell
Writer(s): Richard Nelson

“I’ll have another!”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was much more than the President of the United States to Margaret “Daisy” Suckley—she was also his sixth cousin. The two knew each other in brief snapshots from family gatherings in upstate New York where the wheelchair-bound leader of America found his old home a refuge from the political chaos of Washington, DC. If he could run the country from Hyde Park on Hudson, he would. The land gave him peace of mind through long drives along winding roads and atop fields of tall grass and flowers, the one thing he was missing being the love of a good woman by his side. Daisy (Laura Linney) had heard the rumors about FDR (Bill Murray) and his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) being engaged in a rocky union, but she never imagined her role in its farce.

Narrated by the President’s newest mistress circa 1939, we discover behind the scenes vignettes of a nation clawing its way out of depression just as Europe readied for World War II across the Atlantic. It’s through her blossoming friendship with her cousin that we catch glimpses of a tumultuous time in history and two of the men tasked to sustain a demeanor of strength and hope for victory. As FDR awaits King George (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) at his country estate, it is the stress and uncertainty of a future soon to come that causes his weakness of the heart. So, despite a wife back in DC, his need for companionship in such trying times leads his mother (Elizabeth Wilson) to seek out a friendly face in town. Daisy’s was the first to reply.

Directed by seasoned romance veteran Roger Michell, Hyde Park is culled together by screenwriter Richard Nelson from the real Daisy’s diaries. This fact allows the tale a level of intrigue via its verisimilitude but also leads to its inevitable downfall in terms of message. It is through Daisy that we enter and exit the tale, her words juxtaposed as though we’re watching a reenactment of the passages she wrote and yet the best scenes occur without her being privy to the details. Yes, seeing this hidden side of quite possibly our nation’s greatest leader is a story worth being told and told well, but at what point does it stop being about the woman who helped him survive the pressures of war in private and start being about the public leaders steering us through?

Flittering back and forth, I wouldn’t have had a problem if it weren’t for the filmmakers’ deliberate attempt to make it all from Daisy’s point of view. If you’re going to bolster the action with disembodied prose, you need to stay consistent and perhaps allow FDR and King George a monologue before the focus turns without warning. Or maybe just excise the narration altogether after the opening prologue. Let Daisy wax on about her motivations and insecurities to another character like her aunt (Eleanor Bron) so we aren’t lulled into the belief this is all about her. By constantly including and removing our focal point, the film breaks apart to remove the cohesion it possessed at the start. How great would it have been if all the politics were simply seen incomplete from the fringes?

I’m sure this solution would have been cool. We’d piece together fractured conversations and intense emotional moods without context to create our own truth—Daisy’s truth. Not only would it provide a unique look at history from an outsider’s perspective, it appears to be what Michell and Nelson sought. The downfall, however, is that such a construction would remove two of my favorite scenes from the film. While the first half is all about Daisy and FDR falling for each other in secret from Eleanor and his secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), the rest deals extensively with private meetings between the President and King. These candid conversations pitting the polio-infected cripple against the stutterer contain the best performances, humor, and impact. Pair them with the King and Queen’s bewilderment upon their arrival and you have the moments that stick.

As a result, Hyde Park‘s pieces are much more effective than its whole. Watching Linney’s quiet portrayal wrestle with the eventual discovery of FDR’s transgressions and turn hard and unforgiving is great. Seeing Colman’s fish-out-of-water British etiquette and West’s fantastic transformation containing as much compassion to King George’s plight as Colin Firth did in The King’s Speech is splendid. Each half has enough to hold our attention on their own merits and yet when combined compete to the point of confusion as to what we should be caring about. Should we place our capacity for emotional attachment in Daisy or the King? Should we feel sorry for this willing mistress or empathetic to a monarch in need of a friend? The film doesn’t know which and in return nor do I.

All I do know is that this story allows Bill Murray a rare opportunity to show his craft. From the meticulous detail in FDR getting around without his legs to the fake teeth lisp of his speech to the intelligence we’re told he possessed, Murray is brilliant. He’s a sympathetic genius we’re quick to forgive, his amoral private life no match to how deft he is at handling powerful men like King George. He is a leader amongst men who helped make our country great and while his ploy to stage the hot dog seen around the world to warm America to England’s plight is more important than his use of stamps as a pick-up line, that personal detail is just as relevant. Great men are just that—men. They have all the faults and failings as you and I.

[1] (l to r) Laura Linney stars as Daisy and Bill Murray stars as FDR in Roger Michell’s historical tale Hyde Park On Hudson, a Focus Features release. Credit: Nicola Dove
[2] (l to r) Bill Murray as FDR, Olivia Colman as Elizabeth and Samuel West as Bertie in Roger Michell’s historical tale Hyde Park On Hudson, a Focus Features release. Credit: Nicola Dove
[3] Olivia Williams stars as Eleanor in Roger Michell’s historical tale Hyde Park On Hudson, a Focus Features release. Credit: Nicola Dove

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