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Focus Features
"Hyde Park on Hudson" opens in Austin on Dec. 21, 2012.

MOVIE REVIEW: Hyde Park on Hudson

Bill Murray leads the way with a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in "Hyde Park Hudson," opening to a limited release on Dec. 21, 2012.
"Hyde Park on Hudson" opens in Austin on Dec. 21, 2012.Focus Features

When Margaret “Daisy” Suckley died in 1991, her family discovered a treasure trove of letters and diary entries detailing her 99-year life. She had been long known as a confidante and very close friend and aide to her distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States. Daisy spent much of her time at the President’s side, both at the White House and FDR’s mother’s house, Hyde Park-on-Hudson. Amongst the letters and diary entries found under Daisy’s bed were accounts of meeting King George VI and his wife Queen Consort Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference. Her relationship with FDR had long been speculated as intimate, and her letters and diaries gave enough indication that Richard Nelson wrote the play “Hyde Park-on-Hudson” about their relationship. And it was this play that provided the story for the film of the same name.

The film itself operates on the same level as a radio play, something that the original play explored in an adaption for BBC Radio 3 in 2009. Because much of the relationship between Daisy and FDR is pieced together from her personal letters and diaries, she provides a voiceover narration that is consistent throughout the entire film. The backbone of the film, however, is ultimately King George VI and Queen Consort Elizabeth’s visit to America in June 1939. With Europe on the brink of a Second World War, the Royal Couple visited FDR to please for assistance when England declared war against Germany. However, because of political pressures and lingering disdain for the British Crown, FDR’s cabinet and advisors warned against the two visiting at the White House. Instead, they met at Hyde Park-on-Hudson, the house of FDR’s domineering and controlling mother Sara Delano Roosevelt.


Laura Linney, Bill Murray, and Olivia Williams Rotten Tomatoes

The personal conflict of the film stems from the power plays of the women in FDR’s life, most notably his secretary Missy, his mother, and his wife Eleanor. The President was constantly surrounded by powerful women who aimed to steer the Royal visit in the direction they saw fit. Daisy here provides mostly observation on the power dynamic at Hyde Park-on-Hudson, and how after a single phone call from FDR her life became hinged upon his visits. And while the four women spied and sneered, the King and Queen of England were battling just as much for appearances and the facade of control and confidence as FDR’s women. However, their stakes were much higher, and ultimately made their side of the story the most engaging and rewarding.

This is ultimately the film’s biggest weak point. While Daisy clearly has an interesting perspective on FDR and the power plays of the women he surrounded himself with, there was never a goal reached or even aspired to in these relationships. They were content to share, and although high emotions ran through the women’s interactions—particularly Missy and Daisy—the ultimate compromise was disappointing. The Royal Visit, however, contained the most tension and intrigue, as the film spent equal time showing their reactions and nervous anticipation as it did FDR’s and the entire Hyde Park-on-Hudson staff.

What it comes down to is, much like radio, one character became the narrator because it felt like a narrator was needed, and Daisy was easily that voice because she was the newest member and could observe as a neutral outsider. But since her story never really grew, and she never had any sense of real character development, it felt like her character was only present as an excuse to have her act as narrator. The translation from play to film could have been better executed, but the pieces and players in this film truly shine. What it retains from the radio play, however, is the changing tone of the film. Both Daisy and the Royal Couple adjust to Hyde Park-on-Hudson and the power dynamics of the household, and as the film progresses, the tension decreases.


The King and Queen meet FDR at Hyde Park-on-Hudson Rotten Tomatoes

Although the two portions of the film’s narrative feel somewhat disconnected, there are plenty of other elements that make it truly shine. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous—it can be so easy to think of the Presidency as something that happens behind closed doors and in smoky rooms, but ultimately FDR’s existence hinged upon the outdoors. Flower-covered fields, winding roads through the forest, swimming pools, and hills upon hills surround the President at Hyde Park-on-Hudson, and director Roger Michell captured this scenery in breathtaking fashion. FDR felt at peace when he could escape his meetings and staff and drive through the countryside, and those moments in the film felt truly open and free. The setting of the period, from cars to linens to outfits, was gorgeously executed, with the entire film feeling truly drenched in the 1930s.

Already nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, Bill Murray truly leads the way in this film with a masterful performance. His acting was truly nuanced and approached with great care. The only weakness, however, is that Murray ultimately looks and sounds nothing like FDR. Yet in spite of that, he really does play the part masterfully. The true treasures of this film, however, are Olivia Colman and Samuel West, who play the Queen and King respectively. In the quiet moments they have together at Hyde Park-on-Hudson they quickly establish the dynamic of their relationship—a couple that had the Throne thrust upon them after his brother abdicated—and also highlight the two predominant views of America by the British. The Queen disdained America and harbored the resent of a collapsing Empire, while The King saw that matching America’s self-confidence could help them forge a powerful and rewarding relationship. Their conversations were the most rewarding, and their story the most engaging.

Some viewers may not find themselves able to forgive the disjointed narrative of Daisy and the Royal Couple’s visit. And while this is a noticeable flaw, the acting and gorgeous cinematography shouldn’t scare anyone away from seeing the film in theaters.

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