It's a crude thing to say, but Hyde Park on Hudson is probably the only time I’ve ever been angry about a handjob. Not for me, mind you, but for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United Stated States™. Bill Murray stars as the wheelchair-bound president who entertains the King and Queen of England® shortly before World War II, on their first visit to the Americas. They need to drum up support for the oncoming war, so the stakes are very high indeed, and the usual witty fumblings of a period piece have a little extra gravitas to them. It would make a great movie if we didn’t have to focus on scenes of FDR getting a little somethin’-somethin’ from his cousin in a field, particularly in Real Time©. I didn’t need to see that, and neither do you.
It may seem crass to talk about this plot point so openly, and right up front, but it's a crass thing to show and Hyde Park on Hudson shows it right at the beginning. In a perfect world, the scene would just be a single piece of the period picture’s rich storytelling tapestry, but instead it pops out, kind of pointless, just like the film’s framing device. Despite the fascinating historical figures at play, Hyde Park on Hudson presents the story through the eyes of FDR’s mistress, and yes, sixth cousin, Margaret Suckley, played by the typically brilliant actress Laura Linney. Although Linney does what she can, Suckley’s tale is a mild and simultaneously off-putting one, conflicting tonally with the seriousness of the historical occasion, the wittiness of the rest of the screenplay, and not contributing anything of consequence to the overall story. Suckley, it is revealed, had little to do with forging an alliance between the US and the UK before World War II. She just had to deal with FDR’s philandering, like many a movie mistress before her (and many a real one, for that matter). Her tale is so familiar and blasé that Hyde Park on Hudson grinds to a resounding halt every time she shows her lovely face. Which is most of the time.
So frustrating is this imbalance that the aforementioned handjob, which ends with Suckley’s discomfitingly childlike voice-over calmly declaring that they were now “special friends,” throws a pall over the rest of the charming storyline, which plays amusingly with cultural divides, particularly FDR’s choice of cuisine, a “hot dog” that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (played adorably by Samuel West and Olivia Colman) are convinced is some kind of veiled insult. These two figures, portrayed recently in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech and Madonna’s W.E., have more on the line than any other character in Hyde Park on Hudson. Why they were not the film’s focus is anyone’s guess. How Margaret Suckley, from whose perspective the film is actually told, knows what happened in their private moments is simply inexplicable.
There’s a good movie in Hyde Park on Hudson, but it’s not the one we got. It’s hidden under a formulaic and uncomfortable infidelity drama, and only shows up in wonderful fits and starts, particularly in an extended sequence when FDR and King George VI isolate themselves and open up to one another. It’s unfortunate that all this film has to offer, despite the fine production values and a stellar cast, is one great audition scene for aspiring actors, and the most awkward romantic moment in years.