The Ingredients: ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ is Like a McDLT Without the Novelty Fun

By  · Published on December 8th, 2012

The Ingredients is a column devoted to breaking down the components of a new film release with some focus on influential movies that came before. As always, these posts look at the entire plots of films and so include SPOILERS.

There are two films in particular that I thought about while watching Hyde Park on Hudson, the new historical film about an alleged love affair between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney). Three films if you count Rushmore, due to the reunion of Murray and Olivia Williams, who plays First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the much-talked-about scene depicting a handjob in a car (not a bloody Jaguar, unfortunately), but I don’t consider this one to be an ingredient in the same way. The two that I do think of as more content-based precursors are Dave and The King’s Speech.

Regarding the former, I’m surely highlighting the wrong film as an earlier instance of a leader and his wife who are all but legally separated behind closed doors, the wife fully aware of the husband’s mistresses. But Dave does involve the POTUS and First Lady, and Williams’s Eleanor did remind me at times of Sigourney Weaver’s character in the 1993 doppelganger comedy. There are very likely other dramas of adulterous true stories that relate more to the overall plot of Hyde Park. I haven’t seen the JFK-mistress movie An American Affair, which might more closely fit. But given that I really despised every moment featuring Linney’s character and her storyline, if there are any films closely resembling it, I wish not to watch them.

The latter ingredient is beyond obvious, as it’s the most known and most focused feature film portrait of King George VI and Elizabeth (there’s also the TV movie Bertie and Elizabeth and then films less about them, such as Madonna’s W.E.). Played quite adorably and with amazing chemistry by Samuel West and Olivia Colman, these Royal characters are at the center of the movie’s other plot, in which the couple comes to America for some culture clashing comedy based around hot dogs. I’m one of those who really enjoyed The King’s Speech, but as great as Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter are in that film, I’d be fine with destroying every copy in order to let West and Colman remake the thing. And play the characters in other films as well.

The Suckley storyline and the George and Elizabeth storyline, while simultaneously occurring, feel like two separate movies. Hyde Park is like a cinematic McDLT, that old McDonalds novelty that came packaged with two separate compartments, one for the cold ingredients and one for the warm. And put together they still just form a sorry excuse for a burger (now they just sell it as the whole, calling it the Big N’ Tasty). The failure of the analogy would be in my actually liking the warm meat of the film and wanting more of it (of course, I did enjoy McDonalds burgers as a kid and actually wasn’t fond of all the veggie fixins, so the metaphor childishly fits). And then to acknowledge the extraordinary yet underused portrayal of Eleanor, I’d like to drink a whole mug of mustard, by which I mean I’d love to see a whole biopic of the First Lady as played by Williams.

I think it might have actually been better – or at least more interesting – had the two storylines indeed played as two intentionally separate films edited together to form a whole (like a mini Cloud Atlas, only both sections here are simultaneously set and even overlap with shared scenes). Part of the fun of the McDLT, even if it was just a gimmick that in no real way helped the taste of the sandwich, was its novelty. And Hyde Park might have been more fun were it not just a messy, light-toned drama depicting a tired contrasting of international social practices and multiple sorts of “special relationships.” The only real novelty of the movie is in seeing Murrary’s FDR impersonation.

But even seeing Murray portray a president isn’t that enticing with all the FDR portrayals that have come before, be they serious, comical or unintentionally ridiculous (ahem, Pearl Harbor). This isn’t much more interesting than Art Carney playing the man, or other goofy guys like Edward Hermann, John Lithgow, Ralph Bellamy, Robert Vaughn and, just this year, Jake Busey. He’s so famous that he’s distracting in the role, same as was Kenneth Branagh, Christopher Plummer and Jon Voight before him. He’s not necessarily bad at playing him, it’s just bad that he plays him, no matter the fact that the movie wouldn’t attract audiences as greatly without this casting.

It’s interesting that there has never been a proper big screen biopic on FDR, though there have been plenty of TV productions, most notably Eleanor and Franklin and the sequel, Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (Hermann, who took on the role in both, at least got to play the man on the big screen in Annie). These only have Lucy Mercer as the president’s mistress, though, with no mention of Suckley as far as I’m aware (the second film at least features the role of FDR secretary and alleged mistress Missy Lehand – played in Hyde Park by Elizabeth Marvel – though not hinted at as being a lover). The only other movie with Suckley is the TV drama Warm Springs (the Branagh one), in which she’s only shown as a childhood friend/relative of FDR’s. So there’s some freshness in seeing the affair, as cold as its presentation is.

But I’m getting away from myself in comparing Hyde Park to all these prior FDR films. In fact, Hyde Park may not even connect to more serious biopics (such as this year’s Lincoln), given its unproven implications, as it does to movies like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which has Busey as FDR) and the recently released FDR: American Badass!, in which Barry Bostwick plays the president fighting werewolves. Thinking of Hyde Park being to American Badass! as Lincoln is to Vampire Hunter is like thinking of a McDonalds burger being to a White Castle slider as filet mignon is to a “burger” made of Taco Bell beef and two slices of white bread. Maybe the correct discontinued McDonalds product for the analogy is the Arch Deluxe, though, since they tried to pass that off as something more adult and highbrow than it was, too.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.