Of late, there have been a whole slate of films about the private lives of famous people. Next week, we will have Hitchcock, itself already a companion piece to last year’s dull, self-dramatizing The Girl. Now, we have Hyde Park on Hudson is one such film, committed to laying bare secrets involving President Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as King George VI and his wife Elizabeth. The presence of the latter two recalls The King’s Speech while the myriad sexual relations recalls My Week With Marilyn, the two films that may have started this nosy craze.
In June 1939, the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) visited President Roosevelt (Bill Murray) at his mother’s country estate at Hyde Park on Hudson. Roosevelt uses the venue as an escape from the world and he unwinds with the help of his distant “fifth or sixth” cousin Daisy (Laura Linney). They embark on a sexual relationship. The King and Queen are visiting as part of an attempt by the British to forge closer ties with the US as war in Europe heats up. They are perturbed by the venue and by Roosevelt’s casual bonhomie and suspect that he might be plotting to embarrass them.
Hyde Park on Hudson is an incredibly tame film – even a rather seedy hand job scene is handled with an odd sense of decorum. It is also a film that seems to assume that anything Roosevelt or the King and Queen do and say will be inherently interesting. There is initially a lot of chatter about the preparations for the royal visit and one of the film’s plot points revolving around whether or not King George will eat a hot dog. If anything passes for tension in the film, it is the supposedly foreboding scene in which a table collapses under the weight of too many plates – which, as the film has already tirelessly shown, were borrowed from elsewhere. Good grief. Alongside that, there is a lot of wandering around the countryside and a long, long scene in which Daisy looks through Roosevelt’s stamp collection. For all its apparent revelations, Hyde Park on Hudson is pretty boring.
The film does have what initially appears to be a darker side, in which it is revealed that Roosevelt had a kind of harem and that, with the exception of a stunned Daisy, all the women in Roosevelt’s life knew about it and of each other. In fact, they were all friends. Daisy, initially horrified and quite hurt by Roosevelt’s dalliances with other women, will eventually come round to their way of thinking. The film is surprisingly non-judgemental about all of this, suggesting that Roosevelt was the President during extraordinarily difficult times – the country was still being ravaged by the Great Depression though we never see this – and, hence, needed extraordinary distractions. This would be fair enough except that we rarely see Roosevelt working all that much. We once see him doing a radio broadcast and afterwards listening to a brass band and possibly getting somewhat bored but the rest of the time he is driving around in his especially modified car with Daisy. The royal visit is entirely composed of drinks, dinner, swims and amicably appointed photo opportunities – the journalists do not photograph a real scoop because Roosevelt tells them not to. The group of women seem to feel that it is their duty to help the president unwind but they come across as slightly naïve precisely because the only time we see the president wound is when he is having a disagreement with his mother about whether or not they will serve the King and Queen alcohol.
The film is problematic in terms of history also. The film is based on the diaries and letters of Margaret Suckley or Daisy in the film. However, the film is full of scenes during which Daisy is not present and could not possibly know what was going on such as the private worries and concerns of the King and Queen, which the film itself shows were shielded from the rest of the house. Worse is the fact that the New Deal and the beginnings of World War Two are both much more important than what an old man did in private. The film ends with a note about the discovery of Suckley’s letters and diaries, triumphantly stating, “Her special relationship with the president was, finally, no longer their secret.” Yet it does not make it clear why it shouldn’t be just ‘their’ secret. The film also fails to show us why we should care at all as it didn’t have an impact on history since nothing Daisy does makes Roosevelt more amenable to friendship with Britain. As a closing note, it makes the film seem incredibly nosy, an oddly restrained article in a nevertheless sleazy tabloid.
Hyde Park on Hudson is a quiet, slow-moving film that is more concerned with inviting audiences into Roosevelt’s house than it is with entertaining or exciting them. It feels like an invasion of privacy, all the more so because the events it describes had no real impact on the public at large. In a way, it makes Hyde Park on Hudson one of the most tame and yet uncomfortable films around at the moment. But mainly it makes it one of the most dull.