Editor’s note: Hyde Park on Hudson cruises into theaters this week, so please get handsy with our New York Film Festival review of the film, originally published on September 30, 2012.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is considered to be one of our greatest presidents — a strong, charismatic leader during World War II, beloved by his nation. Roger Mitchell’s Hyde Park on Hudson reveals FDR to be all those things… and also quite the Don Juan. The film tries to reveal FDR “the man,” a history-making president who can also seduce the ladies, befriend shy kings, and possess a mean stamp collection. While Hyde Park on Hudson is consistently entertaining, its tendencies to meander in tone and to veer too far into the ridiculous prevent it from succeeding as a whole.
One fortuitous day, FDR (Bill Murray) requests that his fifth cousin Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney) visit him at his country home in Hyde Park, New York. Naturally, Daisy obliges, and shortly after being dazzled by FDR’s stamp collection she becomes a fixture at his country home. Their visits turn into full days of merriment and long aimless drives on country roads.
When FDR stops the car in the middle of a field of purple wildflowers one afternoon, however, there is only one direction their relationship can go in (not to reveal too much, but watching Bill Murray as FDR receive pleasure in a car is mildly disturbing and somewhat hilarious). Eventually, though, Daisy comes to realize that besides the First Lady (Olivia Williams), she is hardly the only pleasure-giver in FDR’s life…
Some time passes and their affair continues, though Daisy yearns for FDR, you know, during those times when he proactively runs the country in Washington, DC. Soon, the news breaks that the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) will stay at Hyde Park, and the President’s people get caught up in a flurry of preparation. It is 1939, and since America’s support in the war hinges on this visit, the King and Queen are very nervous.
They are especially nervous when faced with an unthinkable task: eating – gasp! – hot dogs at a presidential picnic. This “hot dog debate” actually becomes its own subplot. Luckily, FDR and King George VI instantly become BFF, and all is cleared up. FDR gives the young stuttering King newfound confidence and a delightful feeling of camaraderie unknown to him beforehand. The royal biting of the hot dog literally becomes the turning point in the U.S. and Britain’s “special relationship” during WWII.
Murray as FDR is quite the feat in stunt casting. Clearly he wants another Oscar nomination and is willing to go to great lengths to get one. However, while his FDR is amusing, it’s oftentimes unintentionally so. He sounds as if he is doing a bad Cary Grant impersonation, and his take on the President as “zany life of the party” seems a bit off. FDR in flirt mode is quite the bizarre concept. The winking and coy smiles are really something to behold.
Linney is just fine, which is to say she’s the same as she is in every other movie she’s in. Williams as a butch Eleanor Roosevelt seems a bit wrong, as Williams is a little too young; she has to go all Bette Davis and get in her Plain Jane drag. West and Colman are also just fine; you can tell they must have watched The King’s Speech a lot to prepare.
Outside of Murray’s odd portrayal of FDR and the awkward sensuality at hand, the film has a lot of issues with maintaining a consistent tone. For the most part, the film is light and mildly funny, largely concerned with FDR’s various hijinks and the hustle and bustle of his staff in preparation for the King and Queen. When FDR and Daisy’s relationship experiences a bump in the road, the tone veers sharply into the depressive zone – too much time is spend on evoking Daisy’s utter despair and isolation. She even shows up at a presidential gathering with a look on her face not unlike Glenn Close’s in Fatal Attraction.
Although the film is narrated by Daisy (and based on her real-life diaries and letters found posthumously) she functions mostly as an all-seeing witness to this important moment in history. When the narrative too closely identifies with her, it falters and goes into a darker, less interesting place. She is, after all, the least interesting character in the mix.
While a bit trite, the moments between FDR and King George VI capture the film at its best. Their fireside chats with glasses of liquor are cute enough to be entertaining, and it’s always a novel idea to learn FDR and King George VI’s views on self-esteem… and how to handle their women. The excitement surrounding the royal visit is also fun to watch, as the meticulous care taken in planning parties and the social misunderstandings between the Americans and the British never fail to charm.
Hyde Park on Hudson is certainly an entertaining film, but it doesn’t maintain a certain standard that would necessarily qualify it as a good film. Michell can’t decide whether he is making a comedy or a drama, and many fun moments of levity became mired with Daisy’s less-than-uplifting feelings. The film would have succeeded if her narration were slightly more omniscient. Also, Murray as FDR is hard to swallow at times and makes the film overly silly. FDR as the friend and confidant of King George VI is somewhat interesting. FDR as the lover of his fifth cousin? Not as much.
The Upside: The FDR/King George VI dynamic is fun, albeit largely derived from a fantasy bromantic ideal.
The Downside: The affair subplot is slightly darker in tone and detracts from the overall light tone of the film.
On the side: Between this film and Rushmore, “Mr. Blume” and “Miss Cross” apparently don’t work as a couple.