“Hyde Park on Hudson” is not for everyone. The question is, then, is this quirky, uneven little historical trinket for anyone? I was left feeling friendly towards this movie, even though it had many faults. I guess it was for me, then.
Bill Murray does a chomping impression of FDR in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” and once you get over the initial, Bill Murray-is-dressed-up-as-FDR-for-a-Halloween-party moment, he created a warm and charming character. Indeed, it was his character’s charm that really formed the majority of the story. We watch as he works this charm on a personal and global scale.
A web of adoring women hang around FDR, beginning with his mother, a controlling woman who invites a timid distant cousin, Daisy (Laura Linney) to come visit at the mansion of the title and take his mind off things. She accomplishes this by dutifully fawning over his beloved stamp collection and him. We see her dull life at home, and it would seem she has nothing better to do than accept attention from one of the world’s most powerful men, even if their intimate encounters aren’t shown in the most romantic light. I can’t go into further detail because sometimes my great aunt reads this column, but let’s just say, things are a little one-sided between them in that department. Ahem.
Meanwhile, Olivia Williams, who shall forever be Miss Cross from “Rushmore” to me, is surprisingly radiant as Eleanor Roosevelt, whose personal appearance was not exactly renowned, but whose intelligence and strength certainly come through here. The exploration of the spheres of influence these various women held over FDR is quite interesting, particularly as we go on to consider what he gets from them.
The crucible through which the film considers Roosevelt’s personal, sexual and political power dynamics is a very important weekend visit from the King of England at the start of World War II. FDR, his wife, his mother, his mistress and his advisors are all assembled at Hyde Park on Hudson to entertain King George and his wife, who are there to foster a friendship and convince the US to help.
By far my favorite element of the film was the relationship between the younger British King and the fatherly FDR. George was the stammering monarch who was the second choice to rule after his brother abdicated so he could be with his girlfriend, as we know from “The King’s Speech,” or even, conceivably, history class, and Samuel West (“Howard’s End”) beautifully and endearingly illuminates his struggles.
The men talk about their wives and their fathers, and their scenes play perfectly off of some other extremely well-deployed exchanges between King George and his wife, who is constantly worried that people are making fun of her husband, and whose concern, in turn, undermines his confidence. Above all the royal pair debate whether or not the decision to serve them hot dogs at a picnic is meant to humiliate them.
The moment when the King decides to have a bite, which is memorialized by scores of photographers’ flashbulbs, ends up being one of the key moments of the film. Not just a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of famous leaders, we are also left to consider the role of the media then and now in political decisions. When the crowd bursts into applause over the much-debated bite of hot dog, King George is perplexed, and we modern viewers are confronted by how much has changed. Imagine the tweets per minute if this occurred today.
What began as the story of lonely cousin Daisy and her romance with Roosevelt finds surer footing when it focuses on the political aspect, and when both relationships come to a head on the same night, I lost interest in the Daisy plotline. She is faced with facts about Roosevelt’s multiple lovers, and forced to decide if she can live with it or not. Her clunky voiceover continued to make the pacing of the film feel weird, and ultimately, the collision between personal and political worked better in real life than it did in this film.
As a snapshot, or a character study, or just an interesting historical anecdote, “Hyde Park on Hudson” worked beautifully on some levels, while failing on plenty of others. As my husband declared, “It was kind of bad, but for some reason I think I liked it.” The reasons were Bill Murray and Samuel West I think, but also an overall, inexplicable pleasantness. Perhaps, as those around FDR accepted him despite his many apparent flaws, I too was won over in the end. Actually I was won over in the middle — the end wasn’t very effective.