Murray Steals The Show In Breezy, Affectionate Time Warp

The beautifully shot “Hyde Park On Hudson” captures a peculiar little corner of American history, one that’s an unlikely fit for the big screen. As a rare cinematic look into the private life of an American President – politics are but a small part of the equation – the picture is mostly fearless in its broadly unflattering portrayal of an American hero. The casting of Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt is just one of many quirks that makes “Hyde Park” the enjoyable diversion that it is, but viewers looking for something substantive, akin to an FDR biopic, should look elsewhere.

Director Roger Michell’s depiction of Hyde Park, New York is nothing short of alluring, teeming with plant life and quaint, winding roads, allowing the audience inside Roosevelt’s world of seclusion. But we quickly learn that his private life is far from relaxing. It’s 1939 and President Roosevelt has retreated to his Hyde Park home, where he lives with his overbearing mother. His relationship with his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), has been historically framed as icy, and the film’s setup is no different. Eleanor lives in her own house a few miles away “with other women,” a thinly veiled reference to her much-rumored lesbianism.

Seeking female companionship, Roosevelt calls on his fifth or sixth cousin (no one’s really sure which it is), Margaret “Daisy” Stuckey (Laura Linney), to join him in Hyde Park. Their relationship, consisting of long drives in the country, is strictly platonic, until it’s not. One day, Roosevelt abruptly drives off course, waving off his police detail, and makes implied but explicit sexual advances. Daisy seems shaken, but she shelves her disbelief in favor of appeasing the President. It becomes clear later on that both are satisfied with the nature of their physical relationship, but that doesn’t make it any less awkward for the audience.

The centerpiece of the narrative is FDR’s reception of the King and Queen of England, as Roosevelt was the first American President to greet British monarchs on American soil. King George (colloquially known as Bertie) and Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) are played lovingly by Samuel West and Olivia Colman, respectively. Their candid conversations about the unintentional rudeness of the Roosevelts are highlights of the film, and West’s portrayal of Bertie is good enough to assuage comparisons to Colin Firth’s performance in “The King’s Speech.” The Queen’s horror in regards FDR’s “hot dog picnic” says more about the characters of “Hyde Park” than some films say in pages and pages of dialogue. The culture clash element of the picture is over the top, but it adds to the intimacy that Richard Nelson’s screenplay depends on. The story’s episodic nature would be far less palatable without these amusing anecdotes, regardless of their historical accuracy.

Ultimately, the script is a little too disjointed and the second act, dedicated to the Roosevelts’ preparation for Bertie and Elizbeth, never comes together in a meaningful way. Also, Daisy – essentially the film’s lead – gets lost in the shuffle and her love life with the President doesn’t provide any tension until the King and Queen have run their narrative course.

One’s reaction to the film will depend on a number of things – historical knowledge and interest, an open mind to an alternative look at an often philandering FDR, and a healthy appreciation for Bill Murray. Murray’s range here is extremely impressive, and even his most ardent fans might be surprised by the acting muscles he’s allowed to flex. Linney doesn’t leave as much of an imprint as the rest of the cast, but she lends the character a quiet dignity that other actresses wouldn’t be able to find. “Hyde Park On Hudson” might be something of a featherweight in the arena of Presidential movies, but its aim is part of its charm. And in the end, the filmmakers learned an important lesson from their subject – sometimes it’s best to let the weight of the world go for a while.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 7, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Roger Michell
Screenwriter: Richard Nelson
Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams
MPAA Rating: R (for brief sexuality)