Hyde Park on Hudson

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON. Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson. Directed by Roger Michell. 94 minutes. Rated M (Infrequent coarse language and nudity).

Three important quotes from the film: ‘People pretend not to see what they do see’, ‘People see what they want to see’, ‘It was a time of secrets’. More of these later.

On the one hand, it is a pity that this film comes in the wake of The King’s Speech. It doesn’t have the wide scope and human story of that film. On the other hand, the advantage of its following The King’s Speech is that many audiences may well want to see it because of their interest in the characters of George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Not that Hyde Park on Hudson is principally about them. Their visit to President Franklin D. Roosevelt before the war is the centerpiece of the drama and is well explored. But the film is principally about Roosevelt and his personality, politics and relationships.

Back to the quotations. Some people have been disedified by the information of the celebrated president’s relationships with a number of women. Older people who had John F. Kennedy on a pedestal were disedified, even dismayed, to learn something of the truth about his personal life. But, in this film, it is Roosevelt himself who notes that people pretend not to see what they do see, for a variety of reasons, moral, religious, ethical, political, personal. All are in play in this film in which, it should be noted, everything is presented in a very genteel, 1930s way and controlled language, in terms of the women in the president’s life and in the references to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. These observations reinforce the next statement, that some people see only what they want to see. We do expect people in public office to be completely moral and respectable, though the younger generations may have become more disillusioned (or realistic) about the flaws in character of those who have been put on pedestals. No more evident has this been in the ongoing revelations about sexual abuse in society in general and in the priesthood in particular.

These reflections may seem to give the film more depth than it might appear to have, or even that the film might claim. However, looking at it in this light, listening to the very well-written and intelligent screenplay and appreciating the excellent performances, the film has a great deal going for it. And, for those who might not be absorbed in the way just described, it is always interesting and entertaining.

Bill Murray might seem a strange choice for Franklin D. Roosevelt. But, because the film is showing his strengths (a great personal charm and humour as well as shrewd diplomacy, as well as some moments which remind us of his concern for Americans during the Depression and the New Deal) as well as his flaws and his weaknesses for women (fostered by the personality and other interests of his wife, Eleanor), Murray is a good choice.

The episodes are related by a distant Roosevelt cousin, Daisy, on whose letters, discovered after her death, the screenplay is based. Laura Linney, who can be both tough and delicate on screen, narrates the story and moves from shy recluse caring for her aunt to a fixture in Hyde Park to a love for the president and shocked by his infidelity to her. Olivia Williams does a fine turn as Eleanor, strong-minded, strong-willed, with an ironic sense of humour – the screenplay lifting blame from her for her husband’s roving eye. Elizabeth Wilson is the perfect embodiment of the controlling matriarch whose house Hyde Park is.

But, audiences will be fascinated by the portrayal of the king and queen and will accept the move from Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter. Samuel West is excellent as Bertie, nervous about the visit and its purpose, irritated by his stutter (he was still working with Lionel Logue at this time), not sure what to make of the Americans, but willing to be agreeable, placating his wife, and finding that he enjoyed Roosevelt’s company, it all climaxing in his eating a hot dog at the official picnic and being photographed. Thanking Roosevelt afterwards, he referred to what has now become a significant phrase for American-British interactions, the ‘special relationship’.

Olivia Colman brings new insights into the Queen. She is aware of her dignity, not particularly keen on Americans of American ways (she is shocked by the serving of hot dogs), something of a snob. She is also conscious of stepping unexpectedly into the shoes of the Windsors as monarchs. She doesn’t really like the formalities and expectations of her. In fact, the protocols, even in the US, seem rather rigid. She sounds, in the film, like her daughter in real life – which reminds us that Queen Elizabeth has been living this kind of life, giving these public performances for sixty years without complaint.

If audiences do not expect another The King’s Speech, they will find much to enjoy and think about in Hyde Park on the Hudson.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


Out March 28, 2013.