Hyde Park on Hudson review
Hyde Park on Hudson is a post-King’s Speech reaction to nostalgic royalist sentimentalising which though does have a potentially interesting story at its core, this is depicting a pretty important moment in Western Civilisation’s recent history after all, decides to go for a light trivial romantic comedy.
The basis of the film is the secret diary of its real-life main character, Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney). The probably straight away with this is that its no-where near as interesting or dramatic as the wider monumental political event that is happening at this time. Margaret Suckley’s “special relationship” with one of the most popular (but divisive) American presidents of all time, in Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray), certainly sent minor shockwaves in America when revealed after her death in 1991, but given the crucial world context at the time, minor is the key word.
Without knowing much about the political and personal history of FDR, which this film largely seems to be aimed at, it could be a passable resemblance. But even ignoring the film’s historical inaccuracies, its attitudes to women and laissez-faire relationships is bizarre. The great first lady and feminist icon Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) is largely shoved into the background to allow for FDR’s ugly side to progress, and equally ridiculed for her tolerance of other races and dismissive attitude towards the royal family (and even this quickly becomes forgotten about). Meanwhile, Suckley spends most of the film wondering around the estate wondering when her next opportunity for a hand-job will arrive through incessant and ineffectual use of voice-overs, and once she discovers that she’s actually a secondary affair to FDR’s secretary Marguerite LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel) she is initially visibly upset, but also instantly “accepts” her position.
Now, this can still make a successful film. I recently wrote about how part of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’ is a brilliant film because its central triangle of characters are so damn frustrating. Unfortunately, Hyde Park on Hudson doesn’t even come close to this sort of pacing and structure. The film has options to end satisfyingly too. We are given a glimpse at one point of how Suckley should be reacting to FDR’s womanising, and for a second it feels like a turning point in the film. Finally, someone is justifiably shouting and screaming at all the ridiculously privileged attitudes on display here. But it’s a false start, and it turns out, disappointingly, Suckley has already forgiven her distant cousin, and her and his secretary were going to tag-team him behind Eleanor’s back - we are told Eleanor has basically given up on any romantic involvement with her husband by this point, but that doesn’t make his fairly creepy and seedy attitude any better. Even if this was the real Margaret Suckley’s choice, by the film’s end the whole idea has been so romanticised that we are asked to be OK with illicit affairs and secrecy basically just because we are nostalgically looking back at an American president.
What we get of Murray’s FDR is the socialite rather than the politician. It is well documented that FDR was a highly sociable being, but here it is to the point that we begin to forget that he’s even the president, rather than just a rich american landowner. This is partly intentional to counter-pose with the British Royals visit, but it is a confusing message. There are some smart lines about the differences (and similarities) between an American president and the final time British Royalty to date would feel compelled to become involved in political affairs. But even this is strange. The idea here is to humanise these great public figures so many people put their hopes into. Samuel West’s King George VI and particularly Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth certainly succeed in doing that; we see the royals as perhaps rarely before; filled with anxieties and vices such as smoking and drinking which seems very un-regal to the picture we are used to now. But it also cheapens the whole narrative to be nothing but a high society comedy of errors, rather than the highly crucial moment on the 20th century that it really was.
So what are we supposed to take from it all? Yes, we’ve made the British Monarchy and American commander-in-chief look amusing and (at times) likeable and human. But to what end? The complete underplaying of seriousness - the entire political side of the film hinges on the King of Britain eating a (phallic) hot dog - makes this a light and trivial film that isn’t even funny or entertaining enough to justify itself. The personal side of it is equally confused in it’s strange, romaticised, attitude towards betrayal and secrecy. Sure, it looks quite pastoral and idyllic, but this sort of light meaningless imagery is fitting to an emotionally empty film.