[This is a re-post of my review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Hyde Park on Hudson opens today in limited release.]
Hyde Park on Hudson is two stories: one is a bizarre, deeply misguided “love story” about a mistress; the other is a charming fish-out-of-water story set on a historical stage. Blended together, they make a film that’s unintentionally funny in its brazen schizophrenia where the plotlines overlap in terms of setting and nothing else. Director Roger Michell doesn’t seem to notice how different these stories are, and instead of choosing the superior one, his vacillation makes the picture a captivating train wreck where I couldn’t help but wonder if Michell was being subversively hilarious. How else do you explain a scene featuring cinema’s most romantic handjob?
Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney) is a fifth cousin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray). She is called away from her country home by the President to come and keep him company at his mother’s home in Hyde Park on Hudson. In their first encounter, they talk about stamp collecting, which can be deeply seductive provided one of the participants is the President of the United States. Margaret becomes smitten with the President, and the two begin an affair that she believes is a deep, magical romance. Margaret wistfully narrates the story, and because she sees herself as the centre of the universe, she deserves equal attention to something actually important: King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) visiting America to entreat FDR’s help against Hitler’s Germany.
I simply cannot fathom why these two stories would be put together other than perhaps to serve a blandly-written FDR character that’s wasted on the talented Murray. The actor gives a fine performance, but it’s not particularly memorable and certainly nowhere near his best work. We see that no one, not fifth cousins nor the King of England, can resist the charms of the Roosevelt. But these charms don’t mean anything other than duping Margaret into thinking that she had a special relationship with FDR.
If Hyde Park on Hudson was clever, it would have some element of mocking Margaret’s deluded beliefs. There are times when it seems like the Michell has to be mocking Margaret, like when he shows a picturesque scene of her and FDR in his car, in the middle of a pastoral field, looking off into the distance of a cerulean sky while she jerks him off. But the rest of her story is played completely straight. Michell is truly on Margaret’s side, and Hyde Park comes off as preposterous as a result, especially since he has a much better movie with the King’s visit.
Even though King George VI has been immortalized on film by Colin Firth‘s memorable performance in The King’s Speech, that doesn’t mean no other actor can play the part. West gives a fine performance, and he has the benefit of playing off Colman, who is terrific as the stodgy Elizabeth. George VI’s visit to Hyde Park was the first time British royalty had come to visit America, and that’s a fun historical tale which doesn’t need the distraction of a mistress’ recollections (she’s even more distracting when you consider that Margaret has nothing to do with most scenes involving George). It feels silly to watch FDR charm Margaret with the mighty power of stamp collecting, but it feels like a crucial moment of bonding when he’s with King George. It’s intentionally entertaining when we see George and Elizabeth puzzle over what a hot dog is, and if George should eat one. A movie completely free of Margaret Suckley would have been a welcome treat.
Watching Hyde Park on Hudson is like listening to the memoir of a ridiculously vain person who believes the world literally revolves around her. At one point, Margaret says something along the lines of “This weekend would change the fate of two men, the world, and, most importantly, me.” Perhaps Michell believes that the eighty years distance between the present day and the events of the film somehow turn Margaret’s affair with FDR into something romantic. Maybe fifty years from now, some director will make a sappy historical drama about American’s involvement in the Bosnian War as seen through the eyes of Monica Lewinsky.