‘Hyde Park on Hudson’
Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams, Olivia Colman, Samuel West
Rated: R, for brief sexuality
Runtime: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Bottom line: Hugely flawed but still worth it
“Hyde Park on Hudson” might be the strangest movie I recommend all year.
The film is based on the diary and various papers of Margaret Stuckley, who went by “Daisy” (Laura Linney) and was a distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray).
Throughout his presidency, FDR made extended, working visits to his mother’s home, dubbed Hyde Park, in upstate New York. Daisy lived nearby, and over the years she and FDR developed a close, unique relationship that went well beyond cousins.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” focuses on a period in 1939 when the world was on the brink of World War II, and the United States hadn’t yet committed to supporting its allies militarily. (It’s hard to imagine that in hindsight, isn’t it?)
The film spends most of its time on one weekend when King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) of the United Kingdom visited Hyde Park.
It was the first time a British king and queen had made an official visit to the U.S., and the new, uncertain, stuttering king desperately needed to win the president’s support for the impending war.
Daisy was merely a fly on the wall for this weekend, but she — supposedly — provides our surrogate perspective on this geopolitical turning point, and her love affair with FDR — supposedly — provides the movie’s heart.
Anyone with a mild interest in history knows a lot, relatively speaking, about this pivotal period, yet the story of this weekend is largely unknown. So, like in “Argo,” we get a new angle on an old story.
The movie also offers revelations about FDR, his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and the king and queen.
Ironically, the least interesting part of the movie is Daisy.
The film is marketed as being about her relationship with FDR. Daisy’s voice-over narration, which seems to come straight from the real Daisy’s letters, introduces the story and runs throughout the film.
However, she does not have the most screen time or the most compelling story.
The scenes between FDR and King George are wonderfully written and acted. We watch the king struggle to handle the enormous responsibility of his position, as FDR tries to mentor his counterpart personally while maintaining a distance appropriate for the situation.
The most interesting storyline in the film, however, belongs to the royal couple, though “Hyde Park on the Hudson” trods some of the same ground as “The King’s Speech.”
Bertie and Elizabeth, as they call each other, are a husband and wife who care deeply for one another, they are the leaders of an imperiled country at the mercy of their host country, and they are the guests of what is essentially a dysfunctional family. West and Colman play their parts beautifully, and their scenes are the best moments in the film.
And that is the paradox of “Hyde Park on Hudson.” The Bertie and Elizabeth and Bertie and FDR scenes couldn’t possibly have come from the real Daisy’s memoirs. They violate the entire premise of the film. It’s a glaring narrative flaw that will irritate anyone who values quality storytelling.
Yet those are undeniably the best parts of the film. They are filled with more humanity, tension and humor than any scene in which Daisy appears.
The filmmakers seem to recognize this, too. The story of FDR and Daisy developing their rather icky little relationship is summarized in a couple of scenes and a montage that occupies less than 15 minutes.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” could just as easily have been titled “Bertie and Elizabeth.” It would be more logical — but certainly much less marketable — to put West and Colman on the movie posters rather than Murray and Linney.
With a few surprisingly clumsy exceptions, the individual scenes are well written and the acting is excellent throughout.
Like FDR himself, the positive qualities of “Hyde Park on Hudson” are strong enough to make us overlook its frailties.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.