There’s a certain genre of film whose presence at the festivals is mercifully spare, and whose formula runs as such: take an overlooked aspect history, outfit it with A-list actors in impeccable period dress, give it a wall-to-wall piano score with occasional full instrumental swelling, insert light dialogue which runs the risk of being anachronistic, be sure to include a speech or two which will allow viewers to be sentimental of the past, but also somehow glad they’re not living in it. Call it the Mad Men effect.
In keeping with this trend, Roger Mitchell’s Hyde Park on Hudson, featured in the New York Film Festival‘s main slate, is is a highly adequate piece of Oscar porn, pushed slightly over the adequate mark by a very good cast. Which is not to say it’s all at a loss: the collective presence of Bill Murray (FDR), Olivia Williams (Eleanor Roosevelt) and Samuel West (King George VI, also notable as Leonard Bast in the Merchant Ivory Howards End) is distinguished enough to distinguish a basically unremarkable script and story. Also in the deathless trend of period pieces starring elderly people we’ve seen some true horrors, The Last Station and The King’s Speech ranking high among them, both of which Hyde Park on Hudson certainly surpasses in legitimacy. The action is centered around King George VI’s 1939 visit to FDR’s New York home in Hyde Park to ask for his loyalty in the inevitable case of war. On a deeper level, Hyde Park takes on, mostly hypothetically, the culture clashing that must have ensured during such a weekend, in a time when the wounds from the Revolutionary War were still somehow raw. What mars it a little is that this rawness is hard for us to fathom today, so far removed from events and at this stage so deeply entrenched in the sometimes deleterious “special relationship” between England and America that was said to be formed at that very summit, that the current similarities of the two countries’ cultures render the idea of a culture clash absurd. Told in a separate but interwoven plot line is the story of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, Roosevelt’s distant cousin, confidante, and lover, whose privileged access to the inner workings of the President’s hive comes at a cost. All things come to a head at the picnic which acted the centerpiece of the visit, apparently controversial for introducing the King of England to the all-american hot dog. During the scene, footage of the real event in early technicolor is spliced in, constituting one of the film’s rare stylistic innovations, and an even rarer moments of genuine emotion (The Last Station, too, employed the gimmick of showing real footage of the occasion during the credits, but did not have the inspiration of splicing it into the film itself).
What separates Hyde Park on Hudson from the rest of its prestige picture lineage is the script, which is less embarrassing than usual (even good at points) the camerawork, which is more interesting (shaky at the beginning to suggest Margaret’s (Laura Linney) nervousness, calm and static later) and the interesting way in which FDR’s sexual endeavors are suggested. A hand job is signified by the slight bounce of the model-t, shot from the back with only the upper half of the characters within it visible, cut to a shot of the pink clover that surrounds them, blurring in and out of focus, a quiet omission of pleasure from out of the frame. Another scene, in which Margaret discovers her cousin’s affair with secretary plus a multitude of other, is shown by a shot of glass windows with Laura Linney in front of them in shallow focus, while in the background a blurry silhouette enters the frame, focused enough for us to know it’s a naked body, and elicit. Other than these few moments in which the viewer is not being hit over the head with something, the film is bereft of innovation, technical or otherwise, with the possible saving grace of never letting its sentimentality to get in the way of its solid, successfully proven formula.
The 50th Annual New York Film Festival runs from September 28th to October 14th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.