December 05, 2012

Hyde Park on Hudson

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Hyde Park on Hudson

DRAMA:

United Kingdom, 2012

U.S. Release Date:

2012-12-07

Running Length:

1:35

MPAA Classification:

R (Sexual Content)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Wilson

Director:

Roger Michell

Screenplay:

Richard Nelson, based on his radio play

Cinematography:

Lol Crawley

Music:

Jeremy Sams

U.S. Distributor:

Focus Features

Subtitles:

none


Hyde Park on Hudson represents the odd marriage of an uninteresting, borderline-creepy "romance" and a peek behind the scenes of a notable but unsung historical event. 2012 has seen dramatizations of eras from the administrations of two of America's greatest leaders. However, while Lincoln more than did justice to the sixteenth president, Hyde Park on Hudson is a less-than-successful representation of the thirty-second. Instead of focusing on FDR as a president, this movie gives up half its length to tawdry soap opera.

Bill Murray is an interesting choice to play the only man to live in the White House for more than two full terms. Physically, the resemblance is no better than passing. Murray doesn't attempt an imitation either in mannerisms or voice. The performance is solid but it's difficult to "see" FDR in Murray's portrayal. This might not be as obvious an issue if the amazing work of Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln wasn't so fresh in the memory. Murray has some nice scenes - most when paired with either Samuel West, who plays King George VI, or Olivia Williams, who plays Eleanor. Murray's scenes with Laura Linney's Daisy are stillborn. Daisy isn't interesting and the relationship isn't worthy of a cinematic accounting, even semi-fictionalized as it is.

The movie transpires during the summer of 1939 while FDR is vacationing at his Hyde Park on Hudson estate. Set against the backdrop of a visit by King George VI and his wife, Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), Hyde Park on Hudson also details an affair between the president and his fifth cousin, Margaret "Daisy" Suckley. The scenes detailing FDR's interaction with the royal couple are lively and intelligent; the scenes between Roosevelt and Daisy are dull and awkward. The screenplay, based on Richard Nelson's 2009 British radio play, is unable to bring together the two disparate elements of his story with anything resembling elegance. We're left wondering why Daisy is taking up so much time that could have better been spent exploring the interaction between FDR and King "Bertie" George. The one extended conversation between the two men, which takes place late at night in FDR's study, is the finest Hyde Park on Hudson has to offer.

The failure of the Daisy/FDR romance can't be laid at Laura Linney's feet; she simply isn't given strong enough material to work with. Her character is paper-thin and the love affair (which is a topic of historical debate) doesn't work on any level. The subject of FDR's alleged womanizing might make for an interesting movie, but this isn't it. Meanwhile, Olivia Williams brings some vim and vigor to Eleanor; she's a better custodian of her real-life persona than Murray is. And, although Samuel West lacks the screen presence of Colin Firth (who played Bertie in The King's Speech), his turn is solid if ultimately unmemorable.

Director Roger Michell has an impressive resume that includes one of the best Jane Austen adaptations, Persuasion, as well as the crowd-pleasing Notting Hill and the bittersweet Venus. With Hyde Park on Hudson, he never has a firm grasp of the material. The flashes of brilliance, such as the aforementioned one-on-one between world figures, are juxtaposed with awkward scenes like the "seduction" of Daisy that results in her giving FDR a hand-job. (That's where the R rating comes from, although nothing graphic is shown.) Then there's the hot dog scene; surely the overtly sexual imagery of Daisy lathering mustard on the wiener is intended to have some meaning beyond the obvious...

Admittedly, the scopes and intentions of Lincoln and Hyde Park on Hudson are vastly different. One strives for an epic status while the other settles for something smaller and more intimate. Yet both seek to provide us with windows into seldom-told aspects of the lives of presidents. Although it's unfair to say Hyde Park on Hudson fails completely, it offers a portrait that is more incomplete than Elizabeth Shoumatoff's famous watercolor.

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