Hyde Park on Hudson (London Film Festival review)
I’m “biast” (pro): love the era, love the personalities, love the cast, wanted to love this film
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I have come to the conclusion that, as a film critic, there is nothing worse than a film good enough that you wish it were better… indeed, that you can see perfectly plainly how it could be better. Bad movies are easily dismissible, great movies are eminently embraceable, but movies that let themselves fall into the lazily mediocre are frustrating and enraging and just make a gal wanna curl up and cry for the squandered potential.
Case in point: Hyde Park on Hudson, the true-ish story of how the king and queen of England came to the unofficial summer White House in Hyde Park, New York, in June 1939 to curry favor with FDR, in the hopes that America would join in on Great Britain’s side when the threatening war in Europe finally broke out. For starters: the notion of Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American president — by 1939 some say a virtual American dictator — equally beloved and reviled by the public, and a figure who looms large in American mythology, is maybe the Best Idea Ever. Murray is always so agreeably cranky and cantankerous onscreen, and never more so as FDR. He’s brilliant. He’s entertaining. He’s enigmatic. He’s contradictory. He’s a huge pain in the ass, in the best possible way. Or at least in the most engaging way for us in the dark watching him as a character in a film. Murray (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Get Low) will get awards love in the coming months, and it will be well deserved.
There are likely a million stories to tell about FDR the man, public and private, and the apparently enormous retinue of hangers-on that he accumulated during his presidency. Alas, two of those stories that might have been separately fascinating, and certainly worthy of in-depth explorations on their own, are mashed together in a way that is ridiculous and which gives both of them a short shift that neither deserves. Ostensibly, the unsuccessfully compacted stories here are told from the point of view of FDR’s distant cousin Margaret Suckley, called Daisy by everyone, who was a confidante, friend, helper, and mistress to the president. Screenwriter Richard Nelson — who has not written a produced film since 1993’s Ethan Frome — gives Daisy little to do beyond mope about the constantly fluctuating state of the romantic side of her relationship with the president, which is appalling from all sorts of perspectives. From a feminist angle, Daisy was obviously an important if somewhat hidden influence on FDR during one of the most tumultuous eras in history, but there’s no hint of that here — she is little more than a disgruntled girlfriend, and the usually awesome Laura Linney (Arthur Christmas, Breach) here seems in the role entirely bored by her character… as any thinking woman would be. It’s wildly unfair to Daisy — and to Linney — to reduce her to a sulking sidekick. But that’s what happens.
Much worse is the nonsensicalness of Daisy’s POV. Nelson has chosen to reduce Daisy’s role in FDR’s work… so then how the hell does it make any sense that she could have ostensible knowledge of the other story happening here, that of the meetings between FDR and King George? Nevertheless, the royal side of the tale is what makes Hyde Park worth seeing. One utterly riveting scene — which occurs outside the presence and, as far as we can see here, any awareness of Daisy — puts FDR and the king in the president’s private office, holding the sort of consultation-cum-meeting of minds that would go on to change the course of human history, and all the while simultaneously making these two uniquely interesting and powerful men resolutely human and approachable and sympathetic. Everything in Hyde Park concerning the royals — portrayed with grace, aplomb, and resolute humanity by the wonderful Samuel West (Van Helsing, Longitude) and the goddesslike Olivia Colman (Twenty Twelve, Tyrannosaur) — is fantastic. It’s very much the sequel to The King’s Speech, and wholly worthy of as much love and laurels as that lovely movie was. In some ways, it makes what looks like the rigidity of the royals, from our mere-mortal distance, somewhat even more explicable and more tragic than that other film did… and I say that as no fan of the British royal family, or of the institution of royalty, at all.
I suppose director Roger Michell (Venus, Notting Hill) does his best — I can’t help but be swept up in the glorious 1930s style on display — and yet, we’re still left to contend with the undernourished and deeply unsatisfying Daisy side of the tale. The strange introduction to what’s happening behind closed doors at Hyde Park consists of a desperate attempt to connect the two completely autonomous sides of the film by having Daisy ponder how the arrival of the king — the historic first visit by a British monarch in the 163 years since the colony declared its independence — is congruent with her wondering whether FDR loves her or loves her not. The king and the president are plotting to save the world, and Daisy is pining… and these things are given equal weight? That’s just plain insulting: to the leaders who won World War II, to the real Daisy, and to us in the audience.
viewed during the 56th BFI London Film Festival