Title: Hyde Park on Hudson
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama
Director: Roger Michell
Screenwriters: Richard Nelson
Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams
A ghost of something intriguing lurks somewhere deep within Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson, mostly exorcised and barely detectable under the layers of cutesy historical interpretation and weirdly misconceived hagiography. Its sole interesting germ of an idea is exploring the degree to which someone like FDR (played here to much buzz and fanfare by Bill Murray) can be a great man and an utter cad simultaneously, and suggesting that the talents required to accomplish big things on the world stage are also the characteristics of a sociopath. But the film lacks the guts to follow through on this, and ends up in a weird place: an aimless, mind-numbing prestige picture with uneasy undertones it seems desperate to deny.
The story is told by Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley (a buttoned-up Laura Linney) in a voiceover that sounds like she is reciting the lines at gunpoint. A distant cousin and even more distant acquaintaince of FDR’s, she arrives at his summer home in upstate New York instructed that she is there to keep him company and lift his spirits. He shows her his stamp collection and starts taking her for drives through the countryside. One day, he waves off his secret service escort and parks the car in a meadow. He says something sweet. Daisy reaches over and unzips his pants. “I knew then,” the voiceover helpfully informs us, “that we would be more than just good friends.” Are we seeing two lonely souls who’ve stumbled into a chance at tenderness and companionship? Or has Daisy been expertly seduced?
At first the film plays like it’s going to observe its subject from a distance. We first see him from far across his cavernous office as Daisy makes her awkward approach, like a student sent to the headmaster’s office, an image later repeated at a key moment. Certainly the film’s best beats are incidental observations captured at arm’s length: a quick glimpse of him through a window being physically carried to his office after welcoming the bewildered King and Queen of England; a dopey, good-natured guffaw from the other end of the dinner table at an awkward lull in the conversation. The quirks of a bumbling eccentric, or the calculations of a manipulative genius?
Interesting questions, and Murray has fun with his character’s ambiguities while still giving the sort of big, stunty performance that tends to get year-end attention. But the movie has middlebrow crowd-pleasing instincts, and it gets sidelined. Samuel West and Olivia Colman show up as the King and Queen of England making their first visit to America and there’s a lot of inane comic relief involving how British they are, and how uncouth and American their hosts, and what a mockery it is that FDR is planning to serve hot dogs at a picnic in their honor. The point is the same – FDR’s seemingly oblivious abuse of his patrician guests may be part of a master plan – but the vehicle for it is so absurdly hackneyed that I longed for the dubious half-pleasures of The King’s Speech, which at least gave the same royal couple a modicum of dignity.
Then there’s Daisy, a staggering non-entity meant to form Hyde Park’s emotional core. She’s front and center here, but the film isn’t about her, and her function is to be a doormat. Her heart gets broken, but no one really cares. And the ending, again delivered via her suffocating voiceover, is an almost offensive bit of equivocation, blithely waving off every one of the film’s disquieting suggestions about her experience with the man she thought loved her. The movie has some interesting things to say about who FDR was, and what leadership is, and how brilliance in one arena can equate to cruelty in another. Ideas it has. Drama, it doesn’t.
— Eugene Novikov