So let's see . . . "Hyde Park on Hudson" opened on December 7, 2012. It enjoyed a limited release in this country, so I didn't get to see it until 237 days later when it appeared on cable television (and a tip of the Uncle Mikey propeller beanie to the kind folk at Cinemax).
So. Worth the wait?
Well yes, pumpkins. But maybe not for all the reasons you might be thinking.
Besides "Notting Hill", this is the only other film I've seen directed by Roger Michell. Maybe I need to see more of his work before finalizing an opinion (I especially want to see "Venus"), but his hand isn't quite as heavy as some others I could mention. His actors are allowed to do their work as they mainly focus on finding the best possible reaction to whatever line of dialogue is being delivered. This isn't a bad thing, it just depends on the sort of material Michell has to work with. I can almost (but not quite) imagine him direction "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". He might also manage a version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" which would be closer to Capote's original vision than Blake Edwards'.
For "Hyde Park on Hudson" Michell was working with screenwriter Richard Nelson's interpretation of the letters and diaries of Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (1891-1991) who, among other things, was a sixth cousin to Franklin Roosevelt and one of his mistresses. This business became inaugurated around the same time as the visit by England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, so the two plots sort of dovetailed here.
I must here confess to having had blinders on when I sat down to watch this. The trailers I saw led me to believe that the film was going to deal mostly with the ins and outs of the royal visit to the Roosevelt estate in the titular location. I wasn't aware the family laundry was going to get hauled out as well (although, to be fair, the trailer provided a few hints). This didn't really ruin my appreciation of the movie. We live, after all, in an age where people are visibly uncomfortable unless everyone's reputation is torn down. John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart would be unemployed actors had they been plying their wares in today's Hollywood.
(And no, pumpkins, I didn't read the available synopses of the film. I prefer to take a movie as "cold" as possible.)
And enough with the divergence here. Let's see if I can stay on target.
The June 1939 visit by the King and Queen has been a source of interest to Yours Truly (having been referenced in everything from Curtiz's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to Michael O'Herlihy's mini-series "Backstairs at the White House". The visit that is, and not Yours Truly). The more I became aware of history the more I came to appreciate just how significant this event was.
Well . . . herein we are left with a lesson. Never depend upon a mistress' correspondence for historical insight (although perhaps I should be generous and remember that this wasn't a documentary I was seeing. We are, after all, watching people and not just facts, and people can oftentimes reveal more about history). I think if I had a problem it was in that both Michell and Nelson couldn't seem to make up their minds on what story they were trying to tell.
Some coherence among the characters would've also been nice. I've seen the film twice now, and I can't get clear of the notion that a lot of the characters are depicted as if they're suffering from shell-shock, or trying to awaken after an uneasy night with little sleep. It especially doesn't help that all the women tend to blur after a while. Laura Linney as Daisy Suckley, Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Marvel as Missy LeHand, Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt . . . all of them intoning their lines pretty much alike (albeit Colman with a nice accent) and even managing to dress in more or less the same style. Watching this movie was sometimes like catching an episode of the old "Patty Duke Show" ("They laugh alike, they walk alike, sometimes they even talk alike . . . you can lose your mind"). The trouble wasn't aided by Lol Crawley's cinematography which, while pleasantly pastoral, had several scenes filmed in darkness to the point where I found myself wishing the female characters wore glow-in-the-dark name badges.
So I say Thank God to Elizabeth Wilson for playing Sara Delano Roosevelt as a sort of Captain Bligh in heels. Distinction, even if shrilly delivered, was most welcome. Her performance as Roosevelt's mother has made me want to look more into the woman's history. If she was as much a harridan as she appeared in the film then I would've been tempted to make her ambassador to the Eskimos just for the hope that she'd be set adrift on an ice floe. But she was useful not only in demonstrating how besotted by royalty some people could be (and still are), but by giving Olivia Williams a chance to grit her teeth and deliver some clenched lines.
As with several others I entertained the fantasy of seeing Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter reprise their roles from "The King's Speech" here. But give Samuel West and Olivia Colman their due, they didn't do too badly. West didn't knock Firth off his pedestal, but he nicely managed to portray a man obliged to assume enormous responsibilities while under the weight of what he perceives as a noticeable flaw (for those who haven't seen either this movie or "The King's Speech", George VI had something of a bad stutter). Here's where Michell's direction and Nelson's script come into their own by having the young king face to face with a world leader who, thanks to polio, was in far worse straits than he, and some of the nicer moments come when it's just Firth and Bill Murray together.
As for Mr. Murray: perhaps the reason everyone else in the movie tended to blur was because . . . first, last and always . . . "Hyde Park on Hudson" is his film. As FDR, Murray still had some work to do to dislodge my personal favorite depiction of the character: Ralph Bellamy in Donehue's "Sunrise at Campobello". That aside, Murray glitters and commands the screen every time he appears; seemingly born for the outward panache which Roosevelt was famous for. Over the last ten years (and maybe earlier) we have been fortunate enough to see Murray develop as an actor, and his work here becomes no exception. Still humorous (as an American president must be in order to survive), Murray has managed to portray lightheartedness without the need to smirk at the audience. His Roosevelt commands the situation with a smile, and the audience smiles along with him. It should be obvious by now that his performance was the main reason I was wanting to see "Hyde Park on Hudson" and, whatever sins were committed within the space of the movie, Murray's work was broad enough to bury them.
Not a perfect film, but I rather liked it!