“We were no longer just fifth cousins. We were very good friends.” So says Margaret Suckley, better known by the nickname Daisy (Laura Linney), via a voiceover narration immediately after manually stimulating President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) in his car. This scene, which plays during the first act of Hyde Park on Hudson, acts as a framing device, matched by a scene in the final act in which King George VI of England (Samuel West) takes his first bite of an American hot dog; Daisy observes that it marked the moment America and England became very good friends. This comes only after she dabbles mustard onto the King’s hot dog and spreads it around delicately. Thinking back on both scenes, I’m forced to wonder: Was this an intentional display of sexual humor, given the fact that the hot dog is the most blatant phallic symbol outside of Freud’s cigar?
Hyde Park on Hudson is in large part a dramatization of a crucial event from June of 1939, namely King George and the Queen Consort Elizabeth’s visit to FDR’s country estate in Hyde Park, New York, during which they sought American support for British involvement in what would soon be World War II. Prior to this meeting, no monarch had ever set foot on American soil. Given the historical significance, given the stature of the people involved, you’d think director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson would have strived for something that was both entertaining and edifying. Alas, their offering is an awkward, unrewarding experience – a movie so dull and with such poorly developed characters that it fails to engage the viewer on narrative, thematic, and emotional levels.
Let us return for a moment to that scene in the car, when Daisy has her hands full, so to speak. Although it’s established that Daisy came to expect nothing in life as a result of the Great Depression, and although we see that FDR is a privileged and charismatic man beloved by the American people, an adequate explanation for the two becoming romantically involved is never given. The way the film handles it, it’s as if they’re strangers one day and inseparable confidants the next. This is impossible to accept, even in a dramatization; a woman of her stature and disposition doesn’t lightly make the decision to masturbate the President of the United States. She spends the rest of the film either contentedly assimilating herself into FDR’s circle of friends or neurotically lamenting on the status of their relationship, especially when she discovers that she’s not the only woman he “confides” in.
Although Murray’s performance is likely to get him noticed by the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press, the film’s portrayal of FDR is so unsympathetic that he’s very likely to repel more audiences than he attracts. The focus is less on his presidency and more on his personal life, and as such, we see a man whose joviality masks a cruel disregard for the feelings of the women in his life. Apart from Daisy, there’s his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams), his secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), and his domineering mother Sara (Elizabeth Wilson). Shockingly, Missy not only has come to accept this from him but also expects other women to follow suit. We watch the film desperately hoping that Daisy will be stronger than that, despite the fact that she’s clearly attracted to FDR’s money and power.
Meanwhile, King George and the Queen of England (Olivia Colman) are depicted not as authentic royals but as stuffy British caricatures. This is especially true of the Queen, whose biggest hangup is that the President will be serving hot dogs at an outdoor picnic, presumably because they’re a lowly peasant food – or perhaps because of the very suggestive way in which they’re shaped. I obviously have no way of knowing how the real King and Queen carried themselves during their American visit in the summer of 1939. All I can respond to is how they’re depicted on film, and on that basis, Hyde Park on Hudson doesn’t go to great lengths to make either one of them likeable. You’d be much better off watching The King’s Speech, in which director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler took the time to humanize them both.
There’s only one scene that made an effort to be engaging. That would be when FDR invites King George down to his study for a late-night drink; it begins rather tensely, but as they loosen up, they begin to see that they have more in common than they initially thought. This would include their respective handicaps, FDR with his polio-stricken legs and King George with his debilitating stammer. Is it possible FDR didn’t genuinely care about the King as a person, that his gregariousness was merely a well-orchestrated political tactic? I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that if all of Hyde Park on Hudson had been just as cleverly written and decently characterized as that one scene, it would have been much more compelling. How seriously am I supposed to take a movie when the upshot is the consumption of a hot dog? It seem phallocentrism is no longer limited to discussions in critical theories classes.
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