“Hyde Park on Hudson” might forever be known as that other film in 2012 featuring a U.S. president — if anyone remembers it at all. Both films are entirely different portrayals, namely in the scope of both the stories they tell and the span of time in which they take place, but only one of them is giddy over being a period piece, and it’s not “Lincoln.”
Taking in place in 1939 prior the U.S. committing to what would become World War II, “Hudson” is a film mostly content with being pretty, excited by putting actors in period clothes who pretend to be world leaders. None of these performances are bad, (quite the opposite in fact) but the little piece of history they’re reenacting lacks any bit of import.
Bill Murray as Franklin Roosevelt isn’t even the center of the film. Instead it’s our narrator, Daisy (Laura Linney), FDR’s distant cousin, whose diary and memoirs Richard Nelson used to craft the screenplay. She relays a story of romance, but one that’s modest and presumed, occurring up to and during the arrival of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth from England to Hyde Park on Hudson, home of FDR’s mother and his home away from Washington.
The film invests a lot in presenting FDR in such a casual manner, but this notion of candid access is hardly thrilling, either because the man has been dead for almost 70 years, or because it barely shows him in the context of being president — just a man who people treat with great respect and admiration who is surrounded by a lot of people all the time. Any American who studied the president in school knows about his polio and how he was able to keep the country oblivious to it with cooperation from the press, so that’s hardly a hook either.
Murray is certainly an unusual but inspired choice. Playing a light-hearted and relaxed FDR makes sense for him, though if tested it would be wrong to doubt his capability to command attention in the role. The film doesn’t seem too interested in digging into his psyche, just peeling back the curtain enough to show a man who longed for the affections of women and whose outlook and world view was different from other people in positions of power during his time.
Linney is such a wasted talent as the meek and naive Daisy. Although she narrates throughout, she disappears in stretches, even after the script establishes very clearly that this is her story. She doesn’t factor into the conflict until late, and that’s if you can consider it conflict. Normally, choosing not to embellish the details of an alleged affair in melodramatic Hollywood fashion would be worthy of much commendation, but the details of their relationship are so vague and the process by which Daisy comes to have feelings for FDR and vice-versa so ambiguous that you feel nothing toward either of them.
The arrival of King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) in Hyde Park provides the film a pair of interesting characters and ultimately something to happen in what would otherwise be a purposeless portrait of a president and his sometimes-lover cousin. George has just assumed power after his brother abdicated the throne and they come to America desperate to forge a partnership between England and the U.S.
Therein could be the conflict at the heart of “Hudson,” but the film maintains its light and often jocular tone instead, despite a footnote suggesting the events depicted were crucial to the special relationship between the countries. In essence, much stock is put into the symbol of King George biting into a hot dog.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” is a pleasant film, but it presumes to be interesting on the basis that it depicts famous political figures and exposes a beloved president’s unflattering personal life. Maybe that’s an exaggerated assumption of the film’s intent, but it doesn’t tell a story of any kind as far as plot structure goes. It’s a great advertisement for a film audiences would prefer to see about who FDR really was, but in and of itself, it fails to offer any acute insight.
Directed by Roger Michell
Written by Richard Nelson
Starring: Laura Linney, Bill Murray, Samuel West, Olivia Colman