Hyde Park on Hudson has the misfortune of being released in close proximity to another film about a great American presidential legend, Lincoln. Both are important historical figures worthy of immortilization on the big screen, but while Abraham Lincoln is given a serviceable film, serious in its intentions, Franklin D. Roosevelt is left with little else than a story comprised of historical anecdotes.
The film is positioned from the point of view of Daisy (Laura Linney), Roosevelt’s distant cousin and mistress, as she reflects on a particularly important event in 1939, before America’s involvement in World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and his staff are preparing for the very first visit of a British monarch to America at Roosevelt’s “home away from home,” Hyde Park. In addition to Daisy, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) is also in attendance, as is Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) a personal aid and mistress to the President. It’s no secret who these women are too each other and the president, yet Daisy remains delusioned as to her uniqueness.
Enter Bertie and Elizabeth, King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Coleman), traveling to America at a time when relations weren’t quite what they are today. They are nervous about the trip because Bertie, still a young King, is being pressured by his government to seek assurances from Roosevelt that if it becomes necessary, England can count on US support in the war. They reach Hyde Park, and while they are gracious towards their eccentric hosts, they fear the Roosevelts’ countrified itinerary for the weekend is meant as a slight against their aristocractic background. The mansion’s quaint furnishings, the picnic luncheon complete with a main course of hot dogs, not to mention Eleanor’s resistance to royal pomp and circumstance (“May I call you Elizabeth?”) all contribute to the plethora of cultural tongue-in-cheek jokes that run rampant in this film.
Roosevelt’s affairs, and his interesting arrangement with his wife Eleanor, are all a matter of historical record. But instead of exploring these unorthodox relationships with any sense of dignity to those involved, Hyde Park on Hudson comes off cold, a little sleezy, and reduces the key players to mere caricatures of themselves. Bill Murray, a great talent, is squandered in this role. He isn’t given enough to do, or enough to say to make the audience feel the women in his life should be attracted enough to him to sacrifice the idea of ever having him for themselves. And poor Laura Linney, made to play an amazingly bland central character to a story that is essentially shouldered by her perspective. I found it difficult to feel any sort of attachment or sympathy for Daisy, a woman portrayed as plain, witless, and naive about her position as Roosevelt’s mistress. For a film all about her “secrets” she seems to be the only one oblivious to them all.
The only characters the script makes any attempt to provide depth to are the royal couple and Eleanor. West and Coleman provide the levity to combat some of the more clunky aspects of the story, and Williams provides a sincere performance of the staunchly independent First Lady. One scene in particular involving the King and Queen debating about whether or not they would consume hot dogs at the Roosevelt’s picnic was particularly entertaining.
In conjunction with an overall weak script, director Roger Mitchell’s distracting choices behind the camera don’t serve to elevate the material. Askew camera placements, strange shot composition and a bizarre frantic chase through the woods at night put the tone of the movie all over the place. At the film’s climax, when Daisy discovers she is not the first or the last mistress of Roosevelt’s, she is sitting in her car and is startled by another one of Roosevelt’s women in the back seat. I wasn’t entirely sure if both would exit the car alive. It was a creepy shift in the story that felt incongruous with what had come before or after.
I had high hopes for Hyde Park on Hudson, but the film tells two stories that have little to do with each other and are resolved in such a way that history seldom is; with a neat bow.
Hyde Park on Hudson is now playing at the Ritz East.