The last three years have done some interesting things with the legacy of King George VI.
Colin Firth’s sensitive portrayal of the speech-impaired monarch who led Britain through the Second World War rightfully won the Oscar (though the film that showcased it, The King’s Speech, was something of a “worthy” choice for the Best Picture of 2010). “Bertie”, as he was known among the Windsors, also appears as a supporting character in last year’s W.E., documenting the controversial relationship between George’s brother King Edward VII and American divorcee Wallace Simpson, which led to Edward’s abdication.
While the previous films covered the events surrounding HRH’s unwilling and unexpected ascension to the throne, Hyde Park on Hudson is focused around a single week in the same period during which both King George and Queen Elizabeth AKA the Queen Mother (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) paid visit to the family home of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) to discuss the approaching war.
These events are shown from the perspective not only of their royal highnesses, but also of Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant cousin of FDR who found herself drawn fatefully back into his affairs after many years of estrangement. Though Margaret acts as narrator for most of the film, it’s FDR who provides the heart and soul.
The ever-genial Murray gives a reliably knowing, twinkly-eyed performance as the erstwhile Commander in Chief, a man whose physical enfeeblement belies his irascible wit, as well as his more unsavory appetites. However, Hyde Park on Hudson, as directed by Roger Michell, never scales the dramatic heights of Spielberg’s Lincoln.
The film itself bears more similarity to Three Days in May, playwright Ben Brown’s examination of Churchill’s cabinet tottering on the knife’s edge of appeasement-war. However, Hyde Park on Hudson settles for portentous grumbling about the state of Europe and the comedy of manners surrounding the royal visit. “Will His Majesty deign to eat a hotdog?” is presented as a key diplomatic issue.
Samuel West makes a personable Bertie, but one lacking the character or resolve we might recognize from The King’s Speech – he stands almost in awe of elder statesman FDR and it’s up to the kindly politician to set him on the track to become the man of history the time’s demand. Olivia Colman brings a sense of incredulity and exasperation as the great British matriarch who finds herself out of her depth amidst the ranks of forthright Yanks (personally I prefer her performance to that of Helena Bonham Carter in the same role, though it’s unlikely to receive the same attention, coming as it does in the weaker film).
The steely Eleanor (Olivia Williams) helps keep the house in order, still close to FDR despite their estrangement, and the cast as a whole does solid work. At this point in the proceedings, Hyde Park on Hudson is a two and a half star film: superficially charming and well written, but with not much by the way of depth.
Then comes a bizarre tonal shift that throws everything that has come before and everything that follows it into a far more sinister light. Spoilers are unavoidable here in detailing this (mostly) un-telegraphed change of gears. Suckley, in herself a bland and not particularly interesting individual, has become FDR’s mistress – we are privy to posterity’s most genteel hand-job, performed in the front seats of FDR’s specially modified town car in the middle of the field of flowers.
It’s not until Suckley plays a late night visit to FDR’s woodland cottage, his home away from home, that things get really weird. A glimpse of white flesh in the windows behind Suckley as she sits smoking on the porch – a ghostly figure straight out of a horror movie – and we are thrown into a world of sexual intrigue.
FDR as it transpires, far from a more looking for intimacy and affection, is a serial adulterer and perennial horndog, using the Secret Service to schedule his dalliances. Suddenly the whole thing about hotdogs is cast in a far more Freudian (and, indeed, far more interesting) light with the consummation of their national interest.
FDR suddenly becomes, in the parlance of the times, a cad – in somewhat franker terms, a manipulative bastard. Suckley’s naiveté, previously somewhat dull, now becomes a point of interest, her having led down the garden path by a man whom she admired and trusted. As a result, Hyde Park on Hudson has a truncated feel to it: a mishmash of two incompatible modes – semi farce and psychological portrait.
Though this is by far the most interesting element of the narrative it never feels like it’s been concretely established, and, indeed, the film quickly tries to brush over the moral implications of it. Suckley’s final line of narration is that FDR was her secret, rather than her being his – an attempt to reclaim their affair as a liberating incident. Considering the context in which this declaration is set, it’s less than convincing.
It’s sad given the potential: the first reigning British monarch to make an appearance in The States during the time on their reign, chief of the colonialists visiting their former colony in his time of need. As it stands, were someone to ask, “You know that time when George VI and the Queen Mother visited FDR in Hyde Park, New York”, I’d have to respond, “Not really, no.”
Choosing the present the 32nd President of the United States of a soft-spoken, beguiling letch may have certainly be a novel approach to the man who saw America out of the Great Depression, but even visiting royalty and the encroaching threat of World War can’t do much to liven up proceedings. All fuss, no muss – Hyde Park on Hudson can never quite decide what it wants to be and so ends up being nothing much.