Michael C here with my first dispatch from the 50th New York Film Festival. First up is one of the Fall's two big president-starring prestige pictures.
Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson is a perfect example of that particular type of high-end, finely crafted period piece that hits theaters every autumn on its way to an Oscar nomination for Costume Design. These titles exist to provide awards voters with two hours of comfort food nostalgia wrapped in a thin packaging of historical significance. In recent years this subgenre has provided us with films like Finding Neverland, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and My Week With Marilyn. This year it’s Hyde Park on the Hudson, a film on the low end of this particular style. To call it a dud would be too harsh - kinder to say that it’s a missed opportunity.
The story is narrated by Daisy (Laura Linney), FDR’s devoted mistress as well as his fifth or sixth cousin, depending on how you count. Their courtship leads to the presidential handjob scene that America was undoubtedly clamoring for, (ball’s in your court Lincoln) presented in a montage that verges on the unintentionally hilarious in the extent to which it goes to remain tastefully inoffensive. Think close-ups of wild flowers while the sound of FDR’s limo a-rockin' is heard off-screen.
The set up: With the threat of World War II looming, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) have embarked on the first ever journey to America by British royalty in the hopes a meeting with Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray) at his upstate New York getaway can persuade the Americans to intervene. Other major players in the story include FDR’s busybody mother (Elizabeth Wilson), his stalwart assistant (Elizabeth Marvel) and the brash and outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) who has little patience for the pomp and etiquette of royalty. All her bows are unmistakably sarcastic.
His evolution as an actor over the last fifteen years has earned him the right to take on such a weighty role without the appearance of stunt casting. He finds a nice balance, suggesting the president’s upper crust affectations without ever straining for an impersonation. That we can never quite forget that it is Murray playing the part should not, I think, be chalked up to any weakness in his performance. The screenplay is too broad and simplistic for anyone in the cast to truly convince.
Hyde Park on Hudson also suffers from a serious suspense problem. As in there isn’t any. It is clear from the start that the King desperately needs help and that FDR is determined to give it to him. Any political realities that Roosevelt and King George faced in bringing these two countries together are entirely absent from the movie, so we are left with the story of two kind and thoughtful leaders politely circling each other before agreeing to work together. What dramatic conflict there is comes when the Queen is horrified to learn that – gasp – hot dogs will be served at their welcome picnic. She is convinced that the Americans wish to hold the Brits up for mockery.
Those who criticized The King’s Speech for overstating the importance of the King’s stutter will be amazed to learn just how much dramatic import Hyde Park places on this hot dog business. One would think the only thing preventing Hitler’s armies from marching unopposed across the face of the globe is the King’s ability to stop being a toffee-nosed ponce for one minute and just eat a damned wiener so the press can have their photo op already. I wish I could say that this generated much dramatic tension but I confess at no point was I concerned that kindly King Bertie would crack the waiter over the head with a golden scepter, spilling hot dogs everywhere while exclaiming, “Impudence! How dare you offend the royal nostrils with your horrid peasant food? Remove it at once or by God you will taste my boot heel!”
Once the viewer settles into the fact that Hyde Park isn’t going anywhere special the movie rolls along pleasantly enough for its 95 minute running time. West acquits himself nicely despite facing the unenviable task of following Colin Firth into the role of George VI. Linney does what she can in an underwritten character, while Colman manages to spin endless comic variation out of the Queen’s indignation with American customs (Her pained smile when Eleanor asks if she can call her by her first name is a high point). I would say Olivia Williams’ performance is a scene-stealer but the screenplay neglected to give her the material with which to steal her scenes.