The problem with Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) is that it makes the fatal error of thinking that simply because a story centers around a famous person we should be interested in it. Yes, this movie involves Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the King of England, but it doesn’t involve a script worthy of them. There could be a very good movie that tells the story Hyde Park on Hudson tells (there are brief flashes of it here), but it isn’t Hyde Park on Hudson.
It’s 1939 and the world is on the brink of war. President Roosevelt (Bill Murray) is wooing his fifth cousin Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney) while his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) looks the other direction. At his mother’s house in upstate New York, the president will be hosting King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) of England, the first time any British monarch visited their former colony. The purpose of the visit is to request America’s help in the coming war, but they are treated instead to foreign manners, hot dogs and a little presidential bed hopping as both Eleanor and Daisy are in attendance to help with the proceedings.
The movie suffers from two problems that often bedevil biopics. The first is the fallacy of sexually transmitted interest. We may be piqued to watch a famous actor portray a famous politician, but that doesn’t mean that automatic appeal is given to the unknown person he’s sleeping with. Especially if the part is as poorly realized as Daisy is here. The movie is inspired by the real Daisy Suckley’s private diary, which was discovered after her death, but we hardly get any deep insight at all into what she thinks about Franklin or the royal visit except that she’s amazed at how grand it all is. She’s like a groupie. Worse, if you are interested in what Eleanor thinks about any of this, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
This dearth of investment contributes to the movie’s second problem, which is its split focus between the affair, which bores us, and the political visit, which doesn’t. Make no mistake, there are flaws in the royal story, but it’s much more intriguing and every minute not in its service makes us wish it were. To put it in soulless marketing-speak, the movie is like My Week with Marilyn (2011) meets Julie and Julia (2009) but in all the worst ways. Marilyn had a similar milquetoast next to a person of interest and Julie similarly held our attention in fits and starts, oscillating between a story that grabbed us and one that didn’t.
The worst part of it is the ultra-dear narration in which a soft-spoken Daisy gives commentary on the proceedings in a style that’s like E.M. Forster but for very simple people. It’s bad enough that much of this narration tries to give weight to scenes that don’t have it, but its grandiose style presupposes too much. When Daisy isn’t acting as an authority on what “everyone” is doing or what “no one” wanted she’s telling pointless anecdotes. “We drove along country roads,” she says in a grating near-whisper, “up hills, through woods, through fields. We drove down roads I never knew existed, roads later I could never find on my own.” That’s a riveting story.
The style of the writing and Linney’s delivery give the impression that she’s narrating a Victorian children’s novel except it’s about adultery, which makes for bizarre moral juxtapositions. “People said their marriage was troubled and unhappy,” she says of Franklin and Eleanor, “but I never saw that. That’s not how they were when they were together.” High praise from the mistress. I imagine these musings and the galaxy of other dull observances were taken from Suckley’s private diary. I think it’s rather cruel to take someone’s diary, which is ripe for the banal and the singularly important (perhaps that’s the point), and try to present it for public consumption. I can’t speak for Ms. Suckley but I’d be mortified. Further, for all her grandstanding, it’s not convincing that what she and Franklin shared was anything other than an affair of convenience, as he simply requests her presence when he needs to “relax,” which she dutifully obliges. It includes a forced disunion between them that is supposed to add drama but doesn’t gel with what (albeit little) we know about Daisy so it becomes pointless.
The movie is worlds better when it involves the king and queen. The best parts of the film involved watching their royal highnesses grin and bear any number of American indignities and odd behavior. They are to stay in a room festooned with American propaganda cartoons from the War of 1812, are treated to a ride through a forest of low-hanging branches in a open-topped car, and the queen is asked if she minds being called Elizabeth (she says “No,” but in a way that suggests she’s never had to think about it before). “Are they trying to make fun of us?” the queen asks. It’s hard to tell. The finest sequence is an extended one in which the king and the president share a private discussion about their flaws and their public images, then the king relates his night to his wife afterward, a time-honored tradition even for royalty in which the wife worries if her husband has kept his dignity during an important conversation and, even more so, if he’s kept hers. However, even this scene displays the movie’s deficiencies. One example of the script’s thinness: “Funny man. Such wonderful stories,” says the king of FDR. “Like what?” asks the queen, asking for us. “I couldn’t tell you; they’re not fit for women,” he replies, which is the screenwriter’s code for “I didn’t want to write any.”
There is a fine piece of build-up as the king and queen spend a large portion of the movie fretting over an eventual picnic in which hot dogs will be served, which culminates with the queen sighing that the king’s brother, the dashing and dignified Edward VIII, would never do anything as common as eat a hot dog. It pays off nicely at the picnic itself in which the serving of the dish is treated with the reverence of a religious ceremony. “Do you take mustard?” the president asks the mortified king. “I take whatever you think I should take with my hot dog,” His Majesty replies while holding what to him might as well be a dead fish. “Allow us then to put on a little bit of mustard for you. Daisy, would you show how we put on the mustard?” It’s a charming moment, but then Daisy’s commentary returns to assert that this picnic, and its ceremonial wiener eating, was the lynch pin in Anglo-American relations for the rest of the century, and we’re back in that self-important and languid place in which the movie spends far too much of its time.