Review Date: 11-8-12
Release Date: 12-7-12
Runtime: 94 minutes
Costume Designer: Dinah Collin
Hyde Park on Hudson chronicles a time in American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s life when he becomes intimately involved with his distant cousin Daisy. War looms in Europe, and the British Crown seeks his help. With King George VI and Queen Elizabeth coming for a visit, what to do about the mistress? FDR and Daisy’s relationship seems unlikely at best, however the costumes help to tell the story about class, privilege, status, and wealth.
The story begins with Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney) being called to her cousin’s home to cheer him up. Her cousin just so happens to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray), the invalid President of the United States. She arrives to meet him at his idyllic rural summer estate, Hyde Park on Hudson, and is quickly overwhelmed. He tries to entice her into conversation by showing her his impressive stamp collection.
Brief thumbnail history lesson: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered from polio. He did not have the use of his legs during his presidency, and most often had to use a wheelchair, or be carried around. He was married to another distant cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams), and the movie makes many quasi- comic assumptions at her expense about her sexuality and about her level of affectionate interest in the President.
The film therefore asks us to believe that the president is lonely, suffering in a sexless marriage, and lacking in female attention. Daisy arrives then, at exactly the right time. He takes the simple woman under his wing, shows her around, and makes her feel like she is a part of his life. She spends protracted periods of time with him at the summer estate. They go on long drives together through the countryside, in some of the most beautiful footage I have seen in quite some time. On one particular drive, they stop in the middle of the field of thistles and, rather unceremoniously, President Roosevelt wordlessly asks Margaret Suckley for hand job. Yes, you read that right.
That she capitulates so readily seems odd. The audience where I saw the movie was shifting uncomfortably in their seats. To see an iconic figure like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asking for a base sexual favor from a relative, no less (even a distant one) was shocking, to say the least.
Despite the odd arrangement, the affair blossoms. Daisy and President Roosevelt develop a relationship of sexual trysts, though mercifully these are not seen on-screen. He takes her to a house in the woods that he claims he is having built for her, a place for her to come when she misses him.
Meanwhile the war in Europe is brewing. England needs the support of the United States in order to bolster their efforts to fight the Germans. King George VI (Samuel West), and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) plan a trip to visit the United States (a first at that time) and they stay with the Roosevelt family at Hyde Park on Hudson. Much frenzy ensues as the preparations for the Royal visit come together.
In the end, it all boils down to a picnic at which hot dogs will be served for lunch. Are the English offended by such simple fare? Or could they possibly be offended by the display of snarky cartoons picturing British troops and seamen as monkeys, hanging in the walls of their guest room? The layers of passive aggressive treatment on the part of the Roosevelts toward Britain in the film are thick (especially when you consider that this is a British film…) In any case, there is a disagreement and Daisy is uninvited to the picnic. At the last minute, she shows up anyway.
After the picnic, Daisy runs off to the house in the woods that President Roosevelt had built for her for when she missed him. Unfortunately for Daisy, she sees that the house is already occupied by President Roosevelt and someone else. Another woman. His personal secretary… And she is naked! Daisy is crushed.
After a talk with Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), the personal secretary, Daisy realizes that in order to keep President Roosevelt in her life, she needs to learn to share him. Thank God women have more options than that these days.
As far as the costumes go, this is a story about your station in life. As the wife of a President, Eleanor is resplendent in beautiful – simple yet elegant – dresses that befit her position; Missy, the personal secretary to the President, wears sophisticated businesslike attire that is suitable to her profession; and Daisy, the country girl, naïve, messy-haired and in some way simple-minded, lives in easy cotton prints.
Contrast these women with Queen Elizabeth, who arrives in a powder blue marabou covered coat, then changes into frothy gowns and fussy silk prints. She makes the Roosevelts look like country bumpkins. It’s an interesting expression of the American vs. British ideal of royalty. It’s a lovely juxtaposition. Well done.
The fabrics in this movie are exquisite – great care has been taken to showcase vintage prints and collar/cuff details. The millinery is exceptional – all of the hats in this film are perfect. The men’s suiting is also first-rate, with special attention to subtly graphic neckties that speak so easily of the period.
The movie was beautifully shot, and the performances of King George and Queen Elizabeth alone make this film worth watching. They are hilarious, and our audience was falling out of their chairs. Costume designer Dinah Collin, best known perhaps in costume circles for her outstanding work on the 1995 BBC series Pride and Prejudice, is in top form here. She has captured a slice of rural Americana in a time before the country lost its innocence forever.
The film will surely be controversial in America as it presents a kind of alternative, comic story on some level regarding the relationship of the President and First Lady, and unfortunately, the First Lady is not in on the joke. The relationship (disabled man married to gay woman) is presented as a fact in the movie, but I think that it is dangerous because she is made to be the butt of jokes for her sexuality. I cringe at the notion of President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor being made into a bit of a laughing stock for the sake of entertainment. It is undignified.
There was, for me, a moment in the film where every thing turned, and President Roosevelt felt like a supreme lecher, licentious and dirty. That made me very uncomfortable, in light of everything that he did for this country. I realize that no one is perfect, but to create a feeling of ethical/moral disgust as they have here for one of our most beloved Presidents is troubling for those of us who respect the man for everything he went through and everything he achieved for us in America. This is not really a feel-good film in the end, and I wonder if the risk the filmmakers undertook in getting the story to the screen as they have will pay off.
That being said, it’s still lovely to watch – sepia-toned, nostalgic, gorgeous – but I’ll be very curious to hear what other (American) audiences have to say about it. Sometimes, a little controversy goes a long way; you never know! I hope you can check this film out in your local theaters. The costumes are truly beautiful. Enjoy, Frocktalkers!