Spoiler Level: High, I suppose, but there’s really very little worth spoiling.
My least favorite type of movie is the one I walk out of saying, “What the hell was the point of that?” Movies that succeed in realizing their goals are preferable, of course, but there’s something perfectly honorable about failure: I don’t really mind any movie that tries to say something, even if it crashes and burns spectacularly in the attempt. But even the simplest full-length feature costs exorbitant amounts of money, demands months or years of effort from hundreds of talented people, and—worst of all—requires several hours of my life to watch. There should, at the very least, be some sign of why anyone thought the end result—win or lose—might turn out to be worth all that trouble.
As you’ve probably guessed my now, no such vision or purpose is evident in Hyde Park on Hudson, which is as pure an example of cinematic pointlessness as I’ve experienced all year.
Is it supposed to be a history lesson? Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by Roger Michell (Venus, Notting Hill), focuses on one weekend in 1939, when King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) visited President Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray) at the Roosevelt family estate in upstate New York. It was, to be fair, a historic event: no reigning British monarch had ever visited America, and this one came on a mission: to persuade America’s president to help Great Britain and its allies in the imminent war in Europe.
Unfortunately, Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson (Ethan Frome) have no discernible interest in—or knowledge of—politics: though the crippled president and the stuttering king bond amiably over their respective disabilities, their cocktails, and their difficult wives, there is no gravity to their conversations, and any discussion of the looming war—and America’s role in it—occurs offscreen. The entire significance of the King’s visit, politically, is reduced to whether he can be persuaded to eat a hot dog on camera, and thus prove to a nation of low-brow colonials that he and his people are worthy of being saved from annihilation.
So no: it’s not a history lesson.
Is it a love story? The events unfold from the point of view of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, FDR’s fifth-cousin and—if the film is to be believed—mistress. Daisy is invited to Hyde Park on Hudson by its owner, Sara Roosevelt, FDR’s mother and—if the movie is to believed—pimp. “He needs someone to take his mind off work,” Daisy explains to her own mother. Helping Franklin relax, apparently, involves first feigning interest when he whips out his stamp collection—his preferred seduction technique—and then giving him a quick and loveless handjob when he whips out the presidential pecker in a parked car. Everyone at the estate understands Daisy’s relationship to the President, and no one seems to mind. (The film assumes that Eleanor—played with some wit by Olivia Williams—is a lesbian, so what does she care?)
The only person who doesn’t really understand what’s happening is Daisy, our narrator and point-of-view character, who nonetheless comes across in her own story as naive, insipid, and incredibly annoying: despite seeing no indication that there’s anything the slightest bit romantic—or even erotic—in their cold sexual transactions, Daisy seems to think that she is the President’s treasured (and only) secret love. Her discovery that she has misread him is supposed to serve as the emotional climax of the film, but by that point all we can do is feel sorry for how insipid and clueless Daisy has been all along.
So, no: it isn’t a love story.
Is it, then, an exposé, shedding a little light on the truly reprehensible morals of one of our greatest American presidents, and showing him to be an abuser of women? There are two problems with this reading. First, the film never for a moment suggests that we’re not supposed to love Franklin: in Bill Murray’s portrayal FDR is charming, funny, and likable. It’s true that the film utterly fails to show any sign of gravitas or greatness in FDR, but that’s not intentional: we are meant to see him as a great man with some eccentric (but ultimately loveable) quirks. The film does not judge him any more than his many adoring fucktoys seem to do. (Even Daisy—after a brief period of self-righteous anger—forgives him and retakes her place in his harem.)
The second problem with viewing this as an exposé—or even a character study of a great but flawed man—is more troubling: it didn’t happen. Yes, FDR had at least one long-term affair, with his social secretary Lucy Rutherford (who does not appear in the film); but there seems to be little evidence to suggest he was the sleazy, shallow little whoremonger portrayed in Hyde Park on Hudson. The film ends with a title card that disingenuously suggests this story is based on a collection of Daisy Suckley’s letters and diaries that were found after her death. However, as explained in a recent Washington Post story by Melinda Henneberger, the historian who edited those very papers is “appalled” by how the film portrays the relationship between Franklin and Daisy. “Having read every word of the letters and diaries the film is supposed to be based on,” Henneberger writes, “his impression is that [Daisy] never had sex with anyone, and would be humiliated by such a coarse presentation of their connection.”
So no, Hyde Park on Hudson is not an exposé, a love story, or a history lesson: it is too shallow, too flimsy, too cynically and dishonestly sleazy to be any of these things. And so I am left to believe that its sole purpose is to be a light and frothy comedy, divorced from reality, dressed up in period clothing, designed merely to provide some laughs and pass the time pleasantly.
Unfortunately, by even these very minimal standards, it also fails horribly: its gentle, tepid humor is aimed too low, and stretched too thin, to sustain even the slightest good will. Murray is fine—if oddly insubstantial—in the part, and Linney (a wonderful actress) does what she can with an impossible role, but they and the rest of the able cast and crew have contributed their efforts to a project that has, in the end, no point, no substance, and not a single redeeming value.