A period film featuring British royalty, starring a former comedian, affecting a disability – it must nearly be Oscar time again. In the interim, Hyde Park on Hudson, which stars Bill Murray as President Franklin D Roosevelt, will get a gala screening at the London Film Festival on Tuesday night. But even with so many boxes ticked, is this historical comedy drama a serious awards contender?
Murray could certainly be up for a gong. He’s on sparkling form as FDR, a powerful presence despite being confined to a wheelchair in the aftermath of polio and able to assert his authority with just a simple, inscrutable smile. And he always has the upper hand, even while playing host to the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Coleman) at his country pile in upstate New York in 1939.
Laura Linney squares up well against him as Margaret ‘Daisy’ Stuckley, a distant cousin whose private correspondence with FDR and personal diaries form the basis of the story. She is a timid woman who has lived a sheltered life and is itching to break out – an itch the President is all too willing to scratch. She becomes his mistress and with that, assumes a certain air of importance. These contradictory traits are skilfully entwined by Linney in a way that is funny, sweet and sad.
Romantic dreams are shattered by the sudden realisation that FDR is also sleeping with his secretary (Elizabeth Marvel). But Daisy isn’t just exploited by the President; British director Roger Michell uses her to get an intimate look at a momentous chapter in Anglo-American history. After all, the purpose of the royal visit is to secure America’s cooperation in the fight against Hitler, but the fact is, Daisy wasn’t in on these meetings and FDR is never seen divulging the details to her.
Of course, Michell is allowed a little artistic licence (conjuring an amusing scene of FDR and George VI bitching about their wives between diplomatic efforts), but Daisy is cast aside at vital junctures, diminishing the veracity of the film instead of bolstering it. His portrayal of the royal couple has a similar effect. While he gets a good few laughs out of the Queen’s refusal to eat hot dogs at a public function (scandalous!), there isn’t much else for Coleman to get her teeth into.
Arguably West has the more difficult job, having to follow Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning performance as George VI, but he’s not served as well by a script that makes him a victim of spousal abuse. The scenes between King and Queen play like a 70s sitcom and his stutter becomes just another reason to feel sorry for the old chap. That’s in stark contrast to Firth’s interpretation, which was undercut with dry humour and almost brittle at times, because he demanded respect.
If Michell had stuck more closely to Daisy’s point of view, or else ditched the conceit entirely and made her a background player (which, in historical terms, she probably was) his version of events might have carried more weight. Instead, like a cheating husband, his focus is divided and credibility is stretched thin. Ultimately, the film is left to coast on the charm of its leading players, but as FDR demonstrates, a bit of charm can get you everywhere – perhaps even to the Academy Awards.