By Linc Leifeste | December 21, 2012
Director: Roger Michell
Writer: Richard Nelson
Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Wilson
The most intriguing aspect of Hyde Park on Hudson, the casting of Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also turns out to be arguably the film’s weakest link. Not that Murray’s performance is poor but, much like the film itself, it feels a bit uneven and slight. Murray doesn’t look that much like FDR and despite reigning in his usual sarcastic edge, he fails to effectively capture the charm and allure that the film’s presentation of FDR so heavily relies upon.
Hyde Park ostensibly tells the story of a visit by England’s King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) to the private countryside home of FDR on the eve of World War II. King George knows his country is going to need America’s help in the coming fight against Hitler and he’s come to discreetly ask for it. But in reality, while lamenting the modern world’s media culture which allows leaders and celebrity no privacy, the film’s other plotline is FDR’s promiscuous relationship with his fifth cousin Daisy (Laura Linney). There’s also a subplot about his long-running affair with his long-time personal assistant Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel). And mention of another of FDR’s long-running affairs with a former female staffer. You probably get the picture.
The film’s story is narrated by cousin Daisy, evidently an unmarried spinster, who spends her Great Depression days at home caring for her elderly mother and waiting for her cousin-President to eventually make things better. During a stay at his mother’s (Elizabeth Wilson) New York estate, FDR has his people get Daisy on the phone and let her know that the President would appreciate a visit. She reluctantly but dutifully makes an appearance, not sure what to expect, too shy to even make eye contact as her cousin is busy drinking martinis and making small talk. But before long Franklin pulls out his stamp collection, if you know what I mean. Well, you probably don’t, but evidently stamp collections used to be a great love potion. It’s not long before Daisy’s visits are regular occurrences as the cousins take drives through the countryside and become “very good friends,” which is evidently the polite way to say “cousins who partake in hand jobs and such.”
Of course FDR’s wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), makes the occasional appearance but only in a supporting role as it’s made clear early on that the couple have separate lives and share separate bedrooms. FDR is busy carousing and leading the nation (possibly in that order) while Eleanor is busy being progressive and hanging out with furniture making lesbians. During her limited screen time, there’s something mischievously enjoyable in watching the ever solid Olivia Williams, a British actor, portraying an American First Lady with a bit of disdain for British royalty.
Speaking of British royalty, we discover that poor King George is not the image of self-confidence one might expect. You see, his brother was expected to be the king but he abdicated for reasons of the heart (or crotch), choosing instead to pursue a relationship with an American divorcee. Poor George is doing the best he can but he’s got a stuttering problem and a nagging wife and coming with his hat in hand to American hosts that seem to be intentionally mocking him and his people. For me, the arrival of the British (the Redcoats are coming!) brought Hyde Park a welcome spark of comedy and heart, with the film delicately playing for laughs the royal couple’s confusion and consternation as they try to come to grips with their new and common surroundings. What little depth of character development is found here as we see their interactions with their American hosts but also are granted access to their private conversations away from American eyes. And it is in his interactions with George that we see the legendary people skills of FDR come to light.
The film’s dueling plots climax with Daisy coming to the forced realization that her role in FDR’s life is not as grand as she would like to believe and George and Elizabeth having to maneuver through a lunchtime shindig, organized by Eleanor, that will include the King eating a hot dog (gasp!) in front of the public and the press. An epic affair, this is not, but it makes for a mildly entertaining 90-minute diversion.