Hyde Park on Hudson
Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Wilson, Martin McDougall
R for brief sexuality
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On paper, this project sounded like an excellent chance to glimpse into the life of one of history’s most beloved presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet, nothing in Hyde Park on Hudson bears out those failed aspirations.
Tensions between the United States and the United Kingdom are tenuous. The U.K. is embroiled in World War II and desperately wants the U.S. to get involved. In a last-ditch effort to convince president Roosevelt (Bill Murray) to join their cause, Britain’s King George VI (Samuel West) brings his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) with him to partake in the president’s colorful festivities specifically designed to make the Royals mildly uncomfortable so as to gain the upper hand in negotiations.
The possibilities for dramatic confrontations are evident in the material, but this isn’t the story about George VI’s attempt to beg for assistance. This is a drama centered on the love affair Roosevelt has with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), a confidant and friend who would later become an archivist for the first American presidential library. George VI and Elizabeth are mere background characters to the festivities given minimal access to the plot and seemingly designed to make them seem like out-of-touch foreigners. Colman is negligible in her role as Elizabeth, but West is one of the very few bright spots in the film. While he’s never given enough to do, his performance as George VI is strong and easily compares with that of Oscar winner Colin Firth in the same role. That West never gets as much out of the performance as Firth did is a burden of the pathetic script than any lack of talent.
Murray, an actor with considerable talent as a comedian and proven capability as a dramatic actor (see Lost in Translation), is far out of his depth as Roosevelt. Adopting an ill-fitting and inaccurate accent to the president, there’s never a moment where Murray the actor becomes Roosevelt the president. The foibles and insecurities of Roosevelt at times were well known, but his public facade masked much of those concerns. Here, even in private he’s confident and assured, making Roosevelt seem more like a philandering jerk than an admirable president.
The two women in Roosevelt’s life, his mistress Daisy and his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) are played with bits of inspiration by their respective actors. Linney is considerably talented and seldom gives a disappointing performance; however, in this film she comes close to failing. Saddled with chintzy dialogue and an embarrassing premise, Linney does her best to make Daisy a warm and considerate person unwanting of the attention, but craving it simultaneously. That her strongest moments are earlier in the film showcases how little the setup is developed as the film progresses.
Almost the same could be said of Williams. She’s an engaging actress and her impersonation of Eleanor is incredibly well done, but with very little to bolster the character on the screen, Williams is left to flail with what she’s given. There are some twinges of jealousy that creep up as she observes Franklin and Daisy’s growing affections, but these are left unexplored by inexperienced screenwriter Richard Nelson and journeyman director Roger Michell.
Whether Michell could have done better with a finer script is anyone’s guess. His recent history as a director suggests that it may be his incapability of molding a weak script into something better that gets in the way here. Nelson merely takes inspiration from letters published by the late Daisy Suckley which discuss some of the important events she witnessed while working for the president at the time. Yet, whether there was passion in those letters or not, there is no passion on the screen. Perfunctory, paint-by-numbers storytelling and execution turn this potentially engaging romantic saga into a vapid, listless bore.
Hyde Park on Hudson was an early favorite for the Oscars, earning buzz for the stunt casting of Murray and for frequent Oscar contender Linney. It’s not surprising having seen the film that this discussion went no further and while the scenic design and costumes were admirable for the period accuracy, there’s only so much you can do to dress up something like this. No matter what you do, you cannot fix something that’s crumbling from the foundation up.
June 13, 2013