Movie review: Hyde Park on Hudson
Depiction of FDR's relationship with an in-law is tedious and shallow
Posted: February 27, 2013
Not rising to the occasion. This biopic about U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sadly makes a molehill out of a mountain.
Oh, how wonderful it must have been. In 1939, while the Depression is still in full swing across the 48 states and World War II is about to break out, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a model of tranquility at his country estate in Hyde Park, New York. He sits alone in his study, drinking tea and leisurely smoking a cigarette, before welcoming his fifth cousin, Margaret (Laura Linney), to show her his collection of postage stamps.
Daisy, as the family calls her, is timid and feels a little awkward as this meeting was arranged by FDR's mother, but, in the presence of this charismatic president, already halfway through his second term, she is also glad to be of service by keeping him company. This activity quickly became a bit more intimate than she had expected, as she discovers on an afternoon drive when FDR holds her hand in the car before moving it to his crotch.
Hyde Park on Hudson is the second big film of the year to deal with a U.S. president, after Lincoln, the widely discussed portrait of the man who ended slavery. Unfortunately, Hyde Park on Hudson thinks it proper to approach this towering figure - the only president to have been elected to more than two terms - through comedy and a scandal that is utterly family-friendly viewing, rather than thorough investigation.
The film's raison d'être seems to be the telling of a little-known intrigue involving Daisy, and the story is told from her perspective in a dreary, explanatory voice-over and through a camera that constantly dwells on close-ups of details that hammer home the obvious physical obstacles of the only wheelchair-bound U.S. president. However, it must be said that often the voice-over becomes godlike, when Daisy relates events to us at which she was not even present, and this shift is nothing short of unbalanced, amateurish storytelling.
Directed by Roger Michell
With Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Williams
Bill Murray's turn as the president already provide some clues as to the weight the director and producers really give to the story. While he doesn't venture into his now-famous deadpan expressions, the role he plays is vastly inferior to the image of the man we have in our heads.
Of course, not everyone can be a Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave the impression of directly channeling Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg's recent film, but there is just no sense of this character's actually doing much work. It bears repeating that the film is set mere months before World War II broke out, and besides a few quips about Roosevelt's disappointment at not yet having managed to secure a face-to-face with Der Führer, there is little evidence of his being president at all.
While a president doesn't necessarily have to behave in a way that can be labeled "presidential," we have the benefit of hindsight to know what kinds of problems he faced in real life, none of which makes much of an impression on the film itself.
Halfway through the film, the king and queen of England arrive at FDR's house in Hyde Park - a kind of pre-Camp David - and discover to their great surprise a fully emancipated first lady in Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams), who doesn't live in the same house as her husband and insists on addressing the queen by her first name only. The Anglo-American tension is comical at first, with King George VI put up for the night in a room whose wall is covered in cartoons depicting the British Army as monkeys during the War of 1812, between England and the United States.
The king and queen are depicted as bumbling buffoons, completely out of their depth in upstate New York, where George VI decides to wave at a farmer passing on a tractor, who ignores him because he has no idea who it is. This kind of behavior is repeated elsewhere in the film and certainly demeans the royal household, who is also shown to be incredibly paranoid about the Americans' intentions.
Perhaps this was true, but everything is presented as one big joke on the monarchy, at least until the film tries, at long last, to humanize both Roosevelt and the king by having them open up to each other over a few glasses of liquor late one night. There are some touching moments in this scene, again not even witnessed by Daisy, nonetheless our narrator.
With the exception of this single scene, however, the film is mostly rather dreadful to watch. The relationship between FDR and Daisy could have had a human interest angle from the point of view of either of them, but it doesn't. We are not rooting for them either, because their initial meeting is devoid of any imagination or passion; their afternoon drives are also surprisingly shallow, presented with music that drowns out all diegetic sound, dehumanizing the characters even further.
This is, without question, Laura Linney's worst film to date. Almost always a beacon of hope one can count on to play a role with a sunshine smile hiding deep emotional conflict, this time around her character is hollow, artificial and boring. So is Murray's FDR, and so is the film.
André Crous can be reached at
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