A Special Relationship

All smiles. But the British royals have a serious reason for meeting the American president ……

Title:                         Hyde Park On Hudson

Certificate:              Tbc

Director                    Roger Michell

Major Players          Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Sam West, Olivia Colman

Out of five?              4

It was back in the spring when I first heard about Roger Michell’s Hyde Park On Hudson (see All The President’s Men – And Women, 27 March) – and, yes, as soon as its appearance at this year’s London Film Festival was confirmed, I was in the queue for my ticket.   But my biggest concern was whether it would live up to my already high expectations.  The story and the cast had excited me to the extent that I could sniff a hit on both sides of The Pond ………

Based on letters and papers discovered after the death of Franklin Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Margaret Stuckley, this is the story of their relationship.  And it’s set against the backdrop of one weekend of 1939, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the President in an effort to garner support for the increasingly likely war against Germany.

The opening and closing sections of the film focus very much on the couple, painting a rosy picture of their relationship, and of FDR in particular.  We are viewing it entirely through Margaret’s eyes – she is known in the film as Daisy – and she narrates the film throughout.  However, for most of her visits – and we never truly understand why the President asked her to visit in the first place – she is an outsider, kept at a distance by the First Lady and the staff, so her insights are limited – and even more so when it comes to the scenes between the British King and Queen. This makes for an inconsistent tone, but it also allows us some objectivity in our view of both FDR and the British royals.

The key scene is the late night conversation between the President and the King – two men whose disabilities, in the less enlightened times of the 1930s, could have been seen as holding them back as leaders.  Yet it was exactly these personal challenges that enabled them to lead their countries at times of crisis.  FDR sums it up when the King curses his speech impediment.  “What stammer?” he asks and proceeds to make his way around the room, using the furniture for support.  The American contingent go to greath lengths to disguise, if not actually hide, the President’s inability to walk unaided.  And it’s similarly disguised for the audience: anybody who didn’t know about Roosevelt’s disability would only have realised it when the story reveals that his car was specially adapted so that he could drive independently.  But, then, the American people only found out once their President had died …….

It’s a charming, gently humorous film, although there are times it is let down by the script.  Apart from the questionable use of Daisy as the narrator and the way in which we are catapulted straight into the narrative, it’s very uneven in places: you can see the final line coming a mile off.  But others give the cast plenty to work with, especially those highlighting the cultural differences between the Americans and the Brits, which are the source of much humour.

One of the challenges faced by director Roger Michell was King George VI’s stammer.  He told Francine Stock in a recent interview that it had already been “done” (ie The King’s Speech), so it couldn’t be over-emphasised.  For Sam West’s Bertie, it is still a frustration, but his bigger problem is the lingering shadow of his brother who was trained to be king and who would have done things differently – and so much better. It’s a finely balanced performance, which shows him growing in confidence among the less formal American company.

Olivia Colman is wonderfully brittle as Queen Elizabeth.  She doesn’t like being Queen, she doesn’t like most Americans and she doesn’t like their country.  For her public appearances, she hides behind a mask of heavy make-up which makes her look like a painted doll.  In private, the mask – in both senses – comes off and we hear the real person, as well as her relationship with her husband.

Bill Murray is charm personified as FDR, although there are times that, because we’re looking at him through Daisy’s eyes, he appears too good to be true.  But the canny politician with an eye for a good press photograph is never far from the surface.  Nor is the consummate ease with which he gets people to do exactly what he wants.  The part shows Murray at his best, combining his comedic timing with his equally impressive skills as a straight actor.

Laura Linney has a tougher job in the role of Daisy.  She still wears ankle socks and is naïve almost to the point of irritation – until her rose tinted glasses are snatched away.  Nonetheless, it’s still a good performance and, as the unaffected, country girl in slightly dowdy clothes, she contrasts strongly with the apparent sophistication of the other women in his life.

Hyde Park On Hudson is, essentially, an actors’ piece.  Is it an award contender?  Quite possibly, in the acting categories.  Given that its UK release is scheduled for February next year, BAFTA nominations could be on the cards.  Does it shed light on the politics of the situation?  Not really- although that could be for another film.  It does claim that it was George VI, not Churchill, who was the creator of the phrase “the special relationship” to describe the closeness between the British and American nations.  True or not, it’s a neat way to sum up the two parallel relationships of the film – the personal one and the other that was to  influence much of the 20th century.

This review can be downloaded as a podcast from http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Browse/playaudio/17198

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