Most people who saw The King’s Speech back in 2010 were charmed by the story, the unlikely collision of characters, and the way Colin Firth’s King George VI was humanized through his battle to overcome his speech impediment and rise to the occasion of history. But British film director Roger Michell had a very different reaction as he watched that film unspool. In fact, he had a brief moment of crisis, because he, too, was developing a project that involved King George VI. Michell’s project focused not on the King’s speech impediment, but on his visit to the United States in 1939 to see president Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his home in Hyde Park on Hudson, New York.
Michell’s project had been in the works since 2008, long before The King’s Speech was released. But how many movies focusing on the heretofore underrated George VI could audiences absorb in a short period of time? “We had to reconsider whether we should proceed or whether we would be perceived as jumping on the regal bandwagon. We said to hell with that, we like this story and The King’s Speech really became our flag waver,” says Michell who, with the film’s screenwriter Richard Nelson excised the King’s backstory from the script, assuming audiences would be familiar with it from The King’s Speech. Michell’s story became the film Hyde Park on Hudson, which opened in December. The seriocomic film is loosely based on a true story and stars Bill Murray as FDR and Laura Linney as FDR’s distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, who has an affair with the President. The film chronicles both the affair and the King’s visit.
In contrast to traditional presidential films, Michell (whose previous credits include Notting Hill and Venus) approached the Hyde Park story with a light touch, even though it tells a substantive story. “This is a film which actively concentrates on the private side of this president. We only taste very briefly his public side when we see him give one of his fireside chats early in the film,” Michell says. “It couldn’t be a smaller canvas. It’s a miniature moment in which things happen that make the world shake. It’s Hudson Valley Jane Austen, nothing seems to happen and yet everything happens.”
Although the visit of the King and Queen is central to the film, it is really FDR’s relationship with Daisy that forms the emotional core of the picture. Daisy hadn’t been known to history until 1991, when she died just shy of her hundredth birthday. She had kept quiet about her affair with FDR her entire life. After her death, a box of correspondence was found under her bed. These letters and documents chronicled her intimate relationship with FDR in no uncertain terms.
Daisy was an eyewitness to a key moment in the history of Anglo-American relations. The King’s visit was the first ever visit to America by a member of the royal family. It took place on the eve of World War II. The King was coming to America to try to engage Roosevelt and the still isolationist United States in helping with the coming war, something FDR was reticent to do. Relations between America and England were not as close as they would become during the war. Indeed, some historians have attributed the several days of the King’s visit that form the backdrop for the bulk of the action in Hyde Park on Hudson as the catalyst that forged a strong U.S.-U.K. alliance that has continued to this day in the so-termed “special relationship.”
As with many historical dramas, moviegoers will likely leave Hyde Park on Hudson wondering what in the film is fact and what is fiction, leading Michell to note, “What we’re presenting in the film is an imaginative construction. It’s a reasonable series of suggestions as to what might have been said and how it might have been said between these historical characters. You make historical dramas set in your own time in some way. I went through great lengths not to caption the film or say ‘what you are about to see is true.’”
For much of the film there is a great deal of serious discussion about FDR’s plan to serve the King and Queen hot dogs at a picnic during their stay at Hyde Park. Within this ongoing subplot, the King and Queen argue over whether or not it would be seemly for them to eat hot dogs. Ultimately the King does eat one and is photographed happily while doing so. The photograph of the British monarch eating a hot dog ultimately humanizes him in American eyes. Director Michell assures us not only that this hot dog incident happened in real life, but that it actually mattered. “It was a big choice to bite into that hot dog. It caused a stir in the world of 1939. There were stories written in newspapers about it, there were cartoons published about it. It was a classic case of the butterfly’s wings creating a typhoon on the other side of the world. Our lives are all made up of minute moments which in retrospect become achingly important.” In Hyde Park on Hudson we learn that Kings, Queens, and Presidents are no exception to that rule.