The “story” of Roger Michell’s new film, Hyde Park on Hudson, derives from the personal letters of Daisy (Laura Linney), the nominal protagonist who happens to have been a distant cousin of President Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray). She informs us that she was called in to spend time with FDR, most likely by his mother (Elizabeth Wilson) who ran his household affairs with the iron fist of a tyrant bent on the complete and utter domination of all the people of the known world. Daisy, though, was of another sort entirely; she lived quietly and with a pure and trusting heart. She was a woman made for her times, I suppose, but not the larger historic events about to take place around her.
And so it is a fascinating thing to watch as Hyde Park on Hudson, through dazzling sleight of hand, flips the script from the budding affair between Daisy and FDR and the far more intriguing dynamic that emerges between FDR and the new King of England, the stuttering Bertie (Samuel West) whose story we know thanks to The King’s Speech. Although here, Michell digs deeper into the evolution of the man wearing the crown by juxtaposing the behind-the-scenes relationship he has with his wife Elizabeth and the unsettling interplay he has with FDR.
Each man has an affliction, a very pronounced disability that those within their circles and the world at large try to ignore, but the more everyone pretends to not see the effects of polio on FDR or waits expectantly for Bertie to deliver his next burst of thought through his hiccupping stammer, the less likely it is to see them as they truly are.
FDR and Bertie are fine leaders, ready to stand up to the challenges that await them, but they are also just men, flawed and delightfully human.
Of course, it takes time for audiences to fully appreciate this aspect as well because there is the “story” of Daisy’s entry into this bustling milieu — the retreat among the inner circle for the most powerful man of his day and age where she must battle for her small piece of his time, defending her flanks from his ever-present secretary (Elizabeth Marvel) and his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) who confidently swoops in and out of the frame, yet always knows her place.
And we must also wade through the “event,” the pomp and circumstance of this first meeting between the leaders of the U.S. and England on U.S. soil, at a time when England stood on the verge of another world war with scant resources to devote to waging war on such a scale. England needed the support of the U.S., yet the new King needed to present a strong front. He could not be seen looking weak or ineffectual. He was far too mindful of the comparisons to his father and older brother (who had recently given up his claim to the crown in order to marry a twice-divorced American for love). Poor Bertie suffered the indignation of having to put up with his own wife (Olivia Colman) referencing his perceived deficiencies to his face.
But something wonderful happens after a series of pitfalls during the initial state dinner. FDR and Bertie retire to the study together and, in today’s parlance, things get real. Bertie starts reading prepared remarks with halting success, but FDR convinces him to speak from the heart, by laying his own struggles with polio on the table. This is FDR exposing himself and it obviously eases Bertie’s mind and tongue (well, that and the free-flowing cocktails that FDR shakes and stirs up). There’s a bit of pop psychology in the mix as FDR expresses fatherly pride in Bertie’s ability to take the reins during such difficult times, but it is, at its core, more about politics than any kind of Freudian mind game. FDR realizes that this is merely what Bertie needs to hear and he knows that the words are a free and simple gesture with no strings.
Michell’s film, after this revelatory night, returns to the “story” of Daisy — her arc of discovery of her real place in FDR’s circle and her measured acceptance of the arrangement, but the transformative magic of the exchanges between FDR and Bertie aren’t lost. From the standpoint of the film’s performances, Murray’s paternal glow warms the rest of the movie and creates one of the most genuinely special character portraits of the past year. (R) Grade: A
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