By Joan Ellis
Hyde Park on Hudson is an unexpected pleasure. Despite the extraordinary tension between England and America in 1939, director Roger Michell focuses instead on the ways Roosevelt chose to escape the pressures of his presidency.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth are soon to arrive. Roosevelt knows their trip is driven by the British need for American support in the war that has become inevitable. Despite that shadow, the movie concentrates unapologetically on the recreational side of Roosevelt’s life on his favorite turf – the family home in Hyde Park.
We learn quickly that FDR has an available group of women he genuinely loves on one level or another. Secretary Missy LeHand is always nearby. Dorothy Schiff has a house on the hill. Lucy Rutherford Mercer, who would be with Roosevelt when he dies in 1945, is referred to as a love from long ago. In this movie, director Roger Michell explores his enduring friendship with his cousin Daisy Suckley.
It is Sara Roosevelt, FDR’s intimidating mother and owner of the family house, who summons Daisy (Laura Linney) from her quiet life in Rhinebeck to Hyde Park where she will become the focus of the movie. In a restrained performance, Laura Linney creates Daisy as she is in the biographies: self-effacing, loyal, affectionate, and vulnerable.
Once director Michell has painted the picture of FDR and his women, he shifts seamlessly to the arrival of King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). The couple will suffer through an American picnic where much is made of the British unfamiliarity with hot dogs. Olivia Colman’s queen is wonderfully put off by American customs.
Eleanor (Olivia Williams) returns for the royal visit after it has been made clear that she lives in her own house with friends who come and go. Hyde Park and her mother-in-law are not favored company. Olivia Williams establishes Eleanor’s independence and earnest idealism as well as her acceptance of her husband’s relationships with women.
Samuel West’s King George is, along with Bill Murray’s FDR, one of the two finest performances in the movie. In a scene of great subtlety that should be long remembered, the president establishes a paternal relationship with the young king while linking their physical impairments as problems to be internalized and accepted. Though they both understand the purpose of the king’s visit, Roosevelt takes this moment to encourage and fortify the younger man for the struggle ahead by his own example. The friendship formed in this late night meeting will serve them well throughout the war. Bill Murray and Samuel West make poetry of this scene.
Severely limited physically, Roosevelt nurtured two outlets for relaxation: The women who gave him a private life and the hand-controlled car that allowed him to tear through the woods and fields of the Hudson Valley countryside he loved so much.
With wit and charm, this very good movie captures the flavor of his relationships with both the women and the car.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.