Category Archive for: ‘Lynn Ruth Miller’

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

 

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, now playing at Landmark’s Embarcadero and Clay

Cinemas in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area, is a charmingly intimate look

at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life at his home in Hyde Park, New York.

 

The film focuses on Roosevelt’s erotic relationship with his cousin Daisy Suckley,

which only became public knowledge decades later when her letters (and some of his)

were discovered under her deathbed. Roosevelt is played, with a touch lighter than

air, by the great Bill Murray; Laura Linney’s Daisy is a wallflower at first flattered by

Roosevelt’s attention and then angered by its limits. Both are completely believable and

very affecting.

 

The other focus is on the weekend in June 1939 when the King of England, George

VI, and his wife Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), came to Hyde Park and

were famously treated to an informal (for them) hot dog picnic. They are presented (by

Samuel West and Olivia Colman) quite differently from the way we saw them in The

King’s Speech.

 

Olivia Williams is astonishing as Eleanor Roosevelt. She has her look, her manner,

her physical presence, even her gait, to the life. The screenwriter Richard Nelson gave

Eleanor almost nothing to do, which was a miscalculation. In her occasional few seconds

of action Williams gives the best performance in the film. Also excellent in brief roles

are Elizabeth Marvel as Roosevelt’s secretary Missy LeHand, and Elizabeth Wilson as

his gorgon of a mother. The costumes and production design are true to the period and

beautifully enhance the presentation.

 

The main interest of the film is the insight it gives into President Roosevelt’s life, and

by extension into his work. Nelson (who adapted his BBC radio play for this film), and

Murray too, succeed admirably by their restraint. Some reviewers have criticized the

film for not giving a rounded view of FDR, larger than life (as he could be) and booming

out an inspirational message. But Roosevelt was a hugely complicated man, and Hyde

Park on Hudson is not a biopic. A lot of the value of the film is precisely that it shows

him in a way we are not familiar with – quiet, lonely, exasperated by the tensions in

his household, needing intimacy but also moved as much by his own nature as by his

circumstances toward extreme reserve in his emotional life. By keeping most of the

action centered on small things, and by deliberately underplaying this publicly expansive

figure, Nelson and Murray give us a better look at Roosevelt than most of us have ever

seen before.

 

In particular, the film shows a lot about how Roosevelt’s paralysis affected his life.

We see him in his wheelchair, being carried when necessary, moving with difficulty

by clinging to the side of his desk. During his lifetime the press scrupulously avoided

showing any of this – there are only eight seconds of film in existence that show

him (after polio) walking (with a brace and a strong man to lean on), and only two

photographs (both taken by Suckley) showing him in a wheelchair. The film helps us

understand this part of his life in a way difficult to access otherwise.

 

The visit of the royal couple was not just a colorful episode, but a historically important

event. In June 1939 war in Europe was recognized as inevitable, and Britain urgently

needed American help to survive. But Roosevelt was constrained by the isolationist

views of Congress and the electorate, and couldn’t give the help he wanted to. Not

only were Americans determined not to repeat the experience of World War I, a lot of

them (especially the Irish) were actively hostile to Britain. The Mayor of Chicago said

publicly that if he ever met the King he would punch him in the nose. The real point

of the hot dog picnic was to humanize the British royals in American eyes and make

them appear friendly and approachable, so it would become easier to help them. And

Roosevelt did after this manage a lot of back door help (Lend-Lease, the Destroyers for

Bases program) before Hitler solved that problem by declaring war on the United States

after Pearl Harbor.

 

In keeping with the private focus of the film, close attention is given here to the

personal relationship between the King and the President, which developed into a

strategically important one. It is handled here with great sensitivity and insight.

One false note is the character of the Queen, who is shown here shrewishly hectoring

the King about his stammer and comparing him unflatteringly to his brother (the former

Edward VIII).

This is quite inconsistent with the historical record and all that is known about their

relationship, and it mars the film’s effectiveness.

 

But on the whole, and in almost all its parts, Hyde Park on Hudson is a superbly

crafted and beautifully presented look at a moment in time and an aspect of the life and

personality of one of America’s most important and compelling historical figures.

 

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