Portraying history is difficult. Documentarians are often accused of misrepresenting history with a biased retelling of the facts. However, when playwrights and filmmakers take a historical event and turn it into a speculative drama, then calling that history is as accurate as calling an egg slicer a banjo.
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is a banjo. Or perhaps it’s an egg slicer. I may have lost control of the metaphor. It is based on Richard Nelson’s radio play of the same name. The movie version is currently catching much flack for playing fast and loose with history. The story focuses on the relationship between the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley.
Debate has raged about Suckley (pronounced Sook-ley) for years. Apparently, despite having left an extensive collection of correspondence, she wrote nothing that confirms an affair with the President. Yet this is the assumption HYDE PARK ON HUDSON makes about her relationship with Franklin Roosevelt. There is also the film’s scurrilous portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) to contend with.
If none of this concerns you, then HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (which is the name of Roosevelt’s estate) is chiefly about the weekend that King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth (i.e. the late Queen Mother) visited and stayed at Hyde Park. It was June 1939 and both the King and the President hoped the visit would positively influence American public opinion. The War was coming and many in the United States were against involving the country in a European conflict.
The movie works best as a character driven comedy-drama. Not that the characters are particularly rounded. They are sketches based on our vaguely remembered historical facts. We know that Roosevelt was mostly in a wheelchair. We know about his optimistic public persona in the face of the Great Depression. However, we know very little about how he was in private. Here the film plays its ace in the hole in having Bill Murray portray the President. He gives us a charming, intelligent, frustrated, manipulative and curious man. We are never sure what he will say or do next and this is much of the fun of the film.
Laura Linney is a fine actor but in the role of Daisy, she simply doesn’t have as much to do as she might. Daisy is the narrator of the story, but is not central to the King’s visit. Nelson’s screenplay attempts to say something about her peripheral status in Roosevelt’s life, but what, exactly, is unclear. This is where the film’s reimagined history crashes against the mores of our own time and we are left to consider questions of power and exploitation in the relationship of Daisy and the President.
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is not for history fans. It is an amusing 94 minutes at the movies with an engaging performance by Murray to recommend it. It is playing now at selected cinemas around Australia. (6/10)