By: Robert Ker Published online: Friday, November 30, 2012 Appeared in: Pasateimpo
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1939, King George VI (Samuel West)
and Queen Consort Elizabeth (Olivia
Colman) flew to Franklin Roosevelt’s estate in upstate
New York to make sure they had U.S. support in
the upcoming war. This bit of history could have
made for a gravely serious film, but instead director
Roger Michell (Notting Hill) cast Bill Murray as FDR
and Olivia Williams as his wife, Eleanor. Murray is
never fully believable, of course, but the meeting
of the powers is staged as an easygoing weekend in
the country. Much of the drama actually stems from
Roosevelt’s distant cousin Margaret Suckley (Laura
Linney), who has an affair with the president. Rated R.
95 minutes. Screens one night only as part of the
Santa Fe Film Festival, 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6.
Hyde Park on Hudson, historical dramedy,
rated R, The Screen, 3.5 chiles
In June 1939, members of the British monarchy set
foot on U.S. soil for the first time. The visit was of
utmost importance to the United Kingdom: World
War II was months away from officially erupting,
and the royals needed to confirm that a reluctant
United States would offer support. King George VI
and Queen Consort Elizabeth flew to Franklin
Delano Roosevelt’s estate at Hyde Park in upstate
New York, where they met with the president and
his wife, Eleanor.
Hyde Park on Hudson, the delightful picture that
opens the 2012 Santa Fe Film Festival (at 7 p.m. on
Thursday, Dec. 6), has its camera trained on more
than just international diplomacy. Screenwriter
Richard Nelson drafted the script from letters
and diaries written by Roosevelt’s distant cousin
Margaret Suckley (embodied here by Laura Linney),
whose affair with Roosevelt took her through the
visit by the Brits. Much of the film is seen through
Suckley’s eyes as she takes in world affairs as fairly
commonplace occurrences and experiences the
romantic affair as a series of expectations raised and
dashed that she eventually comes to terms with.
One might think that director Roger Michell
would cast a thespian of great gravity in the role of
the revered Roosevelt, as he must navigate foreign
policy and tumultuous matters of the heart with
equal care. Instead, Michell fitted Bill Murray for
FDR’s wheelchair. The former Saturday Night Live
cutup who smirked his way through films like
Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day — and is
now having a drily comic three-quarter-life crisis
across the canvas of Wes Anderson — seems an odd
casting choice when you look at the posters for Hyde
Park on Hudson. When you watch the film, however,
the choice makes perfect sense.
This is, above all, a comedy. Michell’s CV is wide-
ranging; his most successful film was the 1999 Julia
Roberts rom-com Notting Hill. Hyde Park on Hudson
is a lighthearted romp through a pleasant summer
weekend in the country, as easygoing as iced tea on
a front porch despite taking place in a world that’s
in the midst of depression and on the brink of war.
Certainly, some moments are tense or sad, but this
is nonetheless a movie in which the climactic scene
prominently involves a hot dog.
Much credit goes to the actors, who take their roles
quite seriously while allowing a degree of silliness to
seep in. Murray is never remotely believable as FDR —
how could he be? — but he has a natural command
of the screen. It’s easy for him to play somebody that
many people are drawn to, and he gives a terrific performance. So much of Murray’s late-career resurgence
has involved characters that are beaten down by life
that it’s revelatory to watch him effectively portray a
historical figure who was seen by many as a beacon of
hope. Olivia Williams (who brilliantly played across
Murray in Rushmore) realizes Eleanor with a sharp
tongue and a quick wit; she may be much smarter
than her husband but is smart enough to cater to his
ego when necessary and to demonstrate immeasurable patience at pretty much all times.
Their British counterparts fare equally well. As
Queen Elizabeth, Olivia Colman serves as a fine
counterpart to Williams’ Eleanor; she’s equally
sharp but a bit more skittish behind closed doors,
in keeping with her new position in the family and
on the world stage. King George VI was recently
celebrated in The King’s Speech, for which Colin
Firth took home an Oscar. Samuel West’s take on
the king is less regal but significantly funnier. West
pulls off the neat trick of speaking with a stutter
and still nailing his comic timing. The scenes in
which George and Franklin, two great leaders —
one who can’t talk very well and one who can’t walk
at all — bond over their handicaps serve as some of
the film’s strongest moments.
And then there’s Suckley, a woman who at times
seems to be stronger and more confident than the
prominent people around her and at other times
seems meek and lost. She serves as an audience
surrogate. As a plotline, Suckley’s story can’t help
but be less interesting than the meeting of the
superpowers, if only because it’s the sort of story
we’ve seen more often. Linney excels in a role in
which she’s rarely allowed to have as much fun as
her co-stars, who bounce repartee off one another
and blend into what comes across like a stage play
Hyde Park on Hudson is a perfect film to see at a
festival — one full of small chuckles that blossom
into hearty laughs when shared with an enthusiastic
audience. The story is often silly and frivolous in a
mid-period Woody Allen way, while also offering
enough nutritional content that you feel you’ve seen
something of substance. I saw it at the New York
Film Festival, and the audience was aglow after-
ward. It promises to be the first bright light in
Santa Fe’s festival as well.