It’s a shame that such a crown jewel of a performance from Bill Murray would be wasted on such a poor script.
Hyde Park on Hudson
Many of America’s favorite Presidents had what we’d call ‘personality’; those distinctions that established them in the hearts of those they served. Lincoln with his storytelling, Washington and his cherry tree antics, Clinton and his saxophone. The American public likes to see the personal sides of our Presidents; at least once they leave office that is. In Hyde Park on Hudson, however, we’re exposed to the intersection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal and professional lives, in a way that had me longing to theater hop to that little Spielberg film playing next door.
Hyde Park on Hudson is a based-in-reality story told from the perspective of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 5th cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckly (played by Laura Linney), and takes place for the most part during the weekend that King George VI (Samuel West), along with his wife Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) became the first British Monarchs to visit America. The royal couple visit President Roosevelt at his mother’s home in upstate New York, Hyde Park, with the agenda of asking the President for the help of the United States when the inevitable World War breaks out.
Playing out as a confused farce, accidentally veering into melodrama, Hyde Park on Hudson introduces us to the many women in FDR’s life. As Daisy spends more time with her shining star of a cousin, she finds herself wrapped up in a world of romance and adventure she’s never experienced. And when their relationship becomes sexual (which happens so quickly we’ve hardly finished watching the opening credits, and which holds little historical evidence), she seems all too glad to have the attention of this, the most influential man in the world. Her naiveté to his ongoing relationships with his secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), another unseen woman (his much historically documented mistress, Lucy Mercer), and her dismissal of his friendly if not romantic marriage to Eleanor (played with perfection by Olivia Williams), would all make for interesting dramatic elements if it just wasn’t so obviously ill-suited for Laura Linney. I’d write it off as a casting issue except that she’s forced to narrate the entire film in childish tones, trying to heighten the stories elements with hyperbole and managing only to enhance just how un-impressive it all really is.
As the events of the weekend unfold, from dinner with the King and Queen, where everything seems to go wrong and the full moon garners the blame, to the American-style picnic where hot dogs are served to the horror of Her Majesty, Daisy starts to uncover that to be involved in the President’s life means sharing him with more than just the public. In the most off-putting scene of the film her dramatic reaction to the revelation that an unfaithful husband makes for an unfaithful lover takes such a dramatic turn it’s laughable.
Bill Murray is this film’s guiding light. He plays FDR with perfect execution, nailing his stiff New York drawl and subtle wisdom. As President Roosevelt, he’s warm and likable. As Franklin, the script portrays his personal life as that of a man who craved worship so much he took on mistresses flippantly and apparently with little thought to why these women appealed to him. And because of his age and physical situation, there’s no way not to interpret it as slightly pathetic and icky.
The characters most worth watching are the King and Queen, with all their British propriety and concern for their nation. The most brilliant scene of the film involves a candid conversation between FDR and King George. It seems historically unlikely, but is exactly the sort of anecdote we’d like to hear about a favorite President. How he played father-figure to a King.
Hyde Park on Hudson, while showing some of the affability of FDR, his goofy playful side, dwells more on his philandering ways and doesn’t do much to instill pride in the only President to serve more than two terms. Through Daisy’s narrative lens it’s hard to understand the magnetism he had to accrue the devotion of many, including women. And as a film it flip-flops far too suddenly between comedy, historical drama, and melodrama and therefore is disjointed from one scene to the next. Laura Linney, a proven superb actress, seems to have been suckered into believing that a film that involves both a well-loved President and well-loved King (this being the THIRD film in two years to feature King George alongside The King’s Speech and W.E.) could not fail. But alas, having so many grand elements means the film has only farther to fall on its face and her character is given such little importance to the story no amount of great acting could bring life into it.
It’s a shame that such a crown jewel of a performance from Bill Murray would be wasted on such a poor script. Now can someone please write a better historical drama about FDR for him? Had this one been better, he’d easily have been getting the Best Actor award this winter.