Leaders, politicians and kings have always made for solid award-baiting film material. Hyde Park On Hudson tries to cash in on this with varying degrees of success. On the one hand it picks up nicely where The King’s Speech left off, allowing us to see King George VI, aka Bertie, put his newfound voice to good use. On the other, it paints Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only United States President to serve three full terms in office, in a rather poor light. ThatBill Murray plays FDR is perhaps the one redeeming feature in this otherwise misguided film.
In the summer of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray), seeks companionship and diversion in a friendship with his distant cousin, Daisy (Laura Linney). Bonding over a love of stamps (yes stamps) the pair embark on a secret affair, Daisy’s love and support invigorating FDR at just the moment that King George VI, Bertie (Samuel West), and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) arrive as representatives of Great Britain to seek America’s aid in the upcoming war with Germany.
Visually Hyde Park On Hudson is a delight; all sun-dappled gardens and billowingsummer dresses with jovial jaunts through fields in Roosevelt’s car as he outruns his protective detail. There is something quaintly British about the whole thing, albeit set in upstate New York. And then it takes an icky turn as Daisy and FDR indulge in a little automobile-based gear stick action that’s neither funny norcharacter illuminating. And it’s just wrong for cousins to get up to that kinda nonsense. Even at funerals. And there lies the film’s biggest problem; it struggles to establish a consistent tone.
The romantic moments come as Daisy, a shrinking violet compared to FDR’s battleaxe wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams), quietly offers solace to FDR. The comedy comes from Bertie and Elizabeth’s stiff-upper-lip royals, who are shocked at some of the American practices (hotdogs seem to be particularly offensive) and Bertie’s desperate need to impress FDR. Yet as more is revealed about FDR’s caddish ways, the film loses sight of what it set out to do. As one special relationship blossoms, another is seen to be nothing more than a release of Presidential tension, poor Daisy an inconvenience to be hidden from the well-to-do British monarch.
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Venus) rightly places more and more emphasis on the positive side of the film. FDR and Bertie are kindred spirits; used to being dominated by the women in their lives, they find solace in one another’s company. Unfortunately, these moments are fleeting, one an after hours drinking session, the other a refreshing dip in the pool which highlights FDR’s frail but determined physical state to good effect.
As Daisy, Laura Linney is asked to do little more than reprise her timid Love Actually whispering ways. Brits Olivias Colman and Williams however are genuinely inspired pieces of casting. Williams, all scowls and eye-rolling at her mother-in-law, is superb as Eleanor lending just enough of a soft edge to the role that could so easily have fallen into cliché. Colman meanwhile is delightful as Elizabeth, the current Queen’s Mother. Her wide-eyed horror at the thought of eating a hotdog in front of the press is mixed with her natural and deeply affectionate relationship with West’s Bertie. Given he is following in the stammer of Oscar-winner Colin Firth, West proves equally as adept.
More than anything Hyde Park On Hudson is a Bill Murray film. As FDR he eschews his usual dry delivery to give us a performance that is charming but never idolised, finding just enough flaws and comical mannerisms to flesh out one of America’s most beloved Presidents. His public persona is grand and inspiring but, behind closed doors, Murray conveys the frail mind and body of the polio-suffering leader.
Often misguided and never making the most of its strengths, Hyde Park On Hudson should probably have walked in The King’s Speech’s footsteps. Instead, it will have to suffice with sordid road trips in the country.