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‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ is ambitious, but a muddled and half-formed period drama

‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ is ambitious, but a muddled and half-formed period drama

Hyde Park on Hudson

Directed by Roger Michell

Written by Richard Nelson

United Kingdom, 2012

There’s been a debate brewing online lately over whether or not movies should stray beyond being roughly two hours. Those in favor of shorter films argue that there’s no discernible advantage in making movies so lengthy aside from filmmakers being overindulgent. While some directors aren’t willing to be liberal in the editing bay with their films, a surprising number of movies would do well to not be so concise. One such example is Hyde Park on Hudson, an historical drama about an eventful weekend for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a paramour of his, in the long run-up to World War II.

In a strange but not terribly distracting casting choice, Bill Murray plays FDR, looking less presidential and more like a charming older uncle. Hyde Park on Hudson takes place in June of 1939, as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visit FDR’s estate in Hyde Park, New York, the first time a British king had ever visited America. George did so under the guise of hoping for America to support his country as its citizens waited for the second World War to be fought on their shores. At the same time, FDR seeks personal and romantic solace with a distant cousin of his, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney). Her vantage point is intended to provide a unique view of this fraught period in history.

The core issue at the heart of Hyde Park on Hudson is that Daisy is patently uninteresting, though that’s not Linney’s fault. She’s fine as the ostensible audience surrogate and narrator, but what initially feels like a quiet, intimate chamber piece between FDR and Daisy expands into a story where her viewpoint is the one we want to check in on least of all. The film, directed lushly by Roger Michell and written by Richard Nelson, spends as much time with George and Elizabeth (played well by Samuel West and Olivia Colman) as it does with Daisy. Linney’s presence only emphasizes how underwritten Daisy is as a character, and how poorly established the relationship she’s meant to have with FDR, as well as with his maids, butlers, and executive staff—even Eleanor Roosevelt, as played by Olivia Williams—she interacts with.

Because Daisy is so uninvolving, and because her voiceover narration too often feels like it’s trying to paper over a more compelling scene that was cut for time or just never written. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, Daisy has met FDR for the first time since he became president, they’ve bonded, become romantically ensconced, and begun preparing for the upcoming British invasion. During this time, Daisy tells us how close she’s gotten to FDR; however, the way Michell films their scenes only serves to make them feel distant. Daisy isn’t ever presented as an unreliable narrator, so shouldn’t we feel she and FDR are close to each other, not far apart? Why not depict these scenes instead of just tease us with this tantalizing prospect?

As such, though it’s often reduced to silliness, the compelling half of Hyde Park on Hudson has nothing to do with Daisy. (Though the decent chunk of the film where she doesn’t appear throws into question the internal consistency of the narration.) The struggle that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth have in trying to understand American customs—the script tries to get a surprising amount of mileage out of British people being confused by the existence of hot dogs—is sometimes funny, yet equally insightful. West and Colman have a jagged chemistry as George and Elizabeth. In spite of the impossible-to-not-see connections between this film’s representation of George and that of recent Best Picture winner The King’s Speech, George’s mental battle and attempt to assert himself in the face of his queen is solidly brought to life here. What’s more, the few scenes where George and FDR share the stage are tenser and far more intriguing than anything with Daisy.

Hyde Park on Hudson is a slight film about weighty issues. Setting a story of forbidden romance against a backdrop of political intrigue is novel enough despite not being particularly groundbreaking. Unfortunately, the way that Michell and Nelson execute this concept only deflates any tension or fascination. A full movie could be made regarding FDR’s relationship with Eleanor and the many women with whom he allegedly had affairs. And a full movie could be made in documenting the beginning of the “special relationship” America had with Britain. Merging these two stories is fine, but expecting to do so acceptably or even adequately in 95 minutes is a fool’s errand. Hyde Park on Hudson has big ambitions, but a meager awareness of the appropriate scope upon which to make those ambitions come true.

— Josh Spiegel