By June 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the midst of an affair with his sixth cousin, Margaret Suckley. Also in June 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, in an effort to convince the United States to enter World War II, traveled to Roosevelt’s estate in Hyde Park, New York. Other than the fact that both events were happening at the same time, what does the King of England visiting America have to do with the President fucking his cousin? Absolutely nothing. Which begs the question: Why was Hyde Park on Hudson made in the first place?
It seems like at least once a year, an inert, period piece romance will come out; movies like My Week with Marilyn, Atonement, and Tom and Viv. They don’t seem to exist for any reason other than to generate Academy Award nominations for actors and costume designers. Hyde Park on Hudson is one of these movies. Bill Murray plays FDR; as far as I know, he’s never played a historical figure before, so he’ll probably get an Oscar nomination for this. Laura Linney plays Margaret Suckley, and she gets to add another period piece to her extensive resume.
The story comes from Margaret Suckley’s perspective. When we first encounter her, she’s unemployed and her only duty is to her elderly mother. One day, she gets a call from the White House informing her come down for an interview. She meets her cousin, the President, for the first time in decades. He shows her his stamp collection. The two hit it off and she lands a job as his personal assistant.
Margaret enters a world dominated mostly by FDR’s overbearing mother and his estranged, lesbian wife, Eleanor. Pretty soon, Margaret’s a fixture of that world, absconding with the President to empty pastures to give him hand jobs in his custom-made automobile. Don’t worry; they’re tastefully depicted hand jobs. The political landscape of the time period is downplayed by director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson in favor of emphasizing the domestic drama in FDR’s life. As a result, FDR comes across less as the President of the United States and more of a kindly aristocrat. The Great Depression and World War II are barely background noise to the various affairs FDR is engaged in at his Hyde Park estate.
Then the King and Queen of England arrive for a weekend to implore the President to declare war on Germany. The movie mostly shifts from Margaret’s perspective to King George’s perspective. Bill Murray’s FDR is just as much of an enigma to the King as he is to Margaret. The movie transforms into a sort of comedy of errors as stiff and proper British royalty bump heads with an eccentric U.S. President.
Over the course of the weekend, Margaret learns that FDR has multiple mistresses, and King George faces a dilemma over whether or not to eat a hotdog in front of American cameras. And that’s it. That’s the movie in a nutshell. On one hand, it’s a story about a long dead President fucking his cousin, and on the other hand, it’s about the King of England’s decision on whether or not to eat a fucking hotdog. The two subplots have no overlap or bearing on each other beyond the fact that they take place at the same time and both involve FDR.
To his credit, Bill Murray gives a fine performance as FDR. He doesn’t give an impersonation so much as he simply attempts to convey the essence of the man. It’s not the most accurate depiction of the man, but it’s a fine portrayal for a light hearted dramedy. After the movie gets underway, I certainly didn’t feel as if I were simply watching Bill Murray in spectacles; he was believable as FDR.
The rest of the cast, including Laura Linney, Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt, Samuel West as King George VI, and Olivia Colman as Elizabeth are all perfectly fine. But then again, casting has never been the problem with movies of this sort. These projects always attract serious, capable actors who give serious, capable performances. They also attract top-notch costume designers, set decorators, and cinematographers; Hyde Park on Hudson also benefits on those fronts.
But there’s that question again: Why was this movie made? Why was all of this talent expended on this story? In the grand scheme of things, the events depicted in this movie were inconsequential. FDR had an affair with cousin—yes—but he had affairs with multiple women. The King of England came to America—okay—but the trip didn’t persuade the United States to enter World War II; it took the bombing of Pearl Harbor for that to happen. Neither of the events in this movie had much bearing on each other, the characters they involved, or the course of history.
So why should anyone care enough to see this Hyde Park on Hudson? Because it happens to be based on a true story? That’s what documentaries are for. I paid money to see this movie because it featured Bill Murray playing one of the better American Presidents of the 20th Century. However, even a surprise turn by one of the greatest comic actors in the history of Hollywood isn’t enough to make this film worthwhile.