‘Hyde Park on Hudson’: Halfway there

December 6, 2012

Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson” is half a good movie. When it focuses on the quirks and manipulations of international events, it crackles and pops – and when it turns its attention to the soap-operatic romance, it settles into a dull hum.

Based on real events, Richard Nelson’s script splits its focus, though ultimately this is a tale of the behind-the-scenes Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As played by Bill Murray, FDR is someone who loves to splash around in life as much as he’s allowed, both by his job as Depression-era president and by his ongoing struggle with the paralysis of polio.

The entire movie is told by Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant Roosevelt cousin who is summoned in the summer of 1939 from her home near Rhinebeck, NY, to the Roosevelt family manse at Hyde Park. FDR needs playmates to help him relax and take his mind off work; Daisy is drafted – and winds up as someone who’s there so regularly she could be mistaken for a member of FDR’s staff, if not his family.

So half the movie is about the affair she and FDR launch – and the other half is about a visit by England’s King George VI (the same stuttering monarch whose life was chronicled in “The King’s Speech”) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth. It’s the first time a British monarch has visited the U.S. And it comes at a moment when Great Britain must ask the U.S. for a pledge of support, as England is drawn into war by Germany.

The minutiae and wrangling that go into the visit by British royalty – and the lingering question of whether it’s appropriate to serve hot dogs to a king and queen – is the best part of the film. The king (Samuel West) and queen (Olivia Colman) – mostly the queen – worry that they are being mocked, that there is some deeper, more humiliating meaning to the symbolism of the food than they are aware of.

But the relationship between FDR and Daisy – as well as FDR and his assistant, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), and, of course, FDR and Eleanor (Olivia Williams) – seems to dominate the emotional landscape of this film, rendering it mundane. Who is jealous of who? Who does the president really care for? How much should each of these women be willing to sacrifice, in terms of both their pride and their lives, to be at FDR’s beck and call?

Do we really care? Does it really matter whose feelings were hurt in the traveling harem that seemed to surround the president? For that matter, do we need to watch – from a discreet distance – while Daisy gives FDR a handjob?

The interpersonal messiness seems far less interesting than the collusion by the press to cover up the fact that Roosevelt couldn’t walk without crutches and spent most of his time in a wheelchair. But that’s merely commented upon and then forgotten.

Murray sometimes has the distinctive Yankee rhythms that marked Roosevelt’s speech. He gives a restrained, self-contained performance that at times seems almost too distant, too reserved. Yet he’s convincing as a man who not only demands the last word but deserves it.

Linney does what she can with a thankless role as dowdy mistress, but her character is too passive, too much a part of the furniture to be believable as someone a man as vibrant as FDR would dally with. She’s easily upstaged, even forgotten, once the king and queen take center stage.

Obviously, the story of the affair is the bracketing device for the larger story about the U.S. and England at a crucial moment. But one can speculate about how much more interesting “Hyde Park on Hudson” would have been if it had jettisoned its subplot about this affair.

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