Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Really? The 32nd President of the United States? The man who rescued us from the Great Depression and dealt with the looming threat of World War II? The camp counselor from Meatballs and the smarmiest Ghostbuster was going to play one of the greatest presidents in American history? Really? Many people are probably struck by this casting when they first hear of the new period drama Hyde Park on Hudson. Truthfully, Murray is quite good and probably the least problematic part of this very mixed bag of a movie.
It’s 1939 and the President’s mother’s house in upstate New York is expecting a visit from the King of England. This will be the first time the British King himself has visited the States, and the world is turning its attention to this meeting, since it is likely that Britain will officially ask for American assistance in staving off German aggression. The film focuses on the weekend of this notable meeting. However, it is narrated by Daisy (Laura Linney), FDR’s distant cousin and amongst FDR’s well-documented mistresses. She sees Roosevelt’s attentions as an exciting reprieve from the grind of tending to her own ailing mother. She seems to genuinely love the President, but she is also aware of her place as a tastefully kept secret. Partially through her, we are afforded a glimpse of these famous folk and their private lives.
On the plus side, Bill Murray is fine and reserved as FDR. Dealing with the minutiae of his non-functioning legs while still being able to command an audience in any room he’s in, he is quite believable in the role. Murray definitely seems to be working in service of the character. Laura Linney is also fine as Daisy. She is equal parts loving and awestruck by the whole affair. In similar stories, her role would usually be afforded to a younger woman (think of one of the smitten daughters on Downton Abbey), so it’s quite telling that a lady no longer in her 20s is still this innocent. It speaks to her portrayal as a reserved homebody who hasn’t seen much of the world. However, their relationship is less engaging for the audience than it should be. Obviously their dalliances need to be couched in secrecy. But director Roger Michell seems to be emulating the trappings of a period Merchant/Ivory film without also injecting the underlying passions that infuse those movies with power. Their affair just isn’t all that moving.
Much more effective are the scenes between the President and the newly crowned King George VI. Played well here by Samuel West, the stuttering King is full of nervousness and self-doubt. Obviously the specter of Colin Firth’s memorable portrayal of the same person in The King’s Speech will hang in everyone’s mind. West doesn’t really make you forget about the previous film, but the story here actually is helped by the previous familiarity. The best scene in the movie is a private drink “Bertie” has with FDR after a formal dinner. Diplomacy and mutual admiration are on real display there. Both Murray and West feel genuine in those moments. And when the King mentions the horrors of what had recently happened in Spain possibly happening in his homeland, the stakes of this meeting are quietly felt.
On the minus side for Hyde Park on Hudson, there just wasn’t enough THERE there. We are supposed to be getting a behind the scenes glimpse of a historical figure we still revere today. But so much of what he accomplished isn’t even addressed. The Great Depression gets a couple of parenthetical mentions. War in Europe is mentioned minimally when that is what this central meeting is supposed to be about. The script is much more interested in adding up how many affairs Roosevelt was having at the same time. That is an interesting aspect to explore, but we don’t get to see what that all possibly meant to the man himself. The affairs feel more salacious than they do enlightening. Meanwhile, Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt is reduced to a cold, severe figure who barely seems to register. She was as complex and interesting a figure in history as he was, but this movie reduces her to almost non-existent status. Also, while trying to milk for comedy the fact that at an upcoming barbecue the Americans will be serving royalty something as crude as hot dogs, as a subject it comes up so frequently that by the time the dreaded picnic arrives you end up thinking “just shove the damn frankfurter in your face already!” There hasn’t been this much mention of an unacceptable foodstuff since the poo pie in The Help. Finally, the score is one of the most irritating of the year. With tinkling piano sounds, it’s working overtime to try to create a refined British chamber drama atmosphere. But it comes in at times when no score would have been more effective, trying to beat you over the head and tell you how to feel about what’s going on.
Hyde Park on Hudson is a valiant effort to show a small moment behind a big event. It features some effective acting by its leads, and there probably is an interesting story to this historic weekend in the country. But the filmmaking itself undermines much of what is going on. Of all things, World War II is reduced to an end-of-film postscript. We all know there was more going on here. It would have been good to see it.
Final Grade: B-