'Hyde Park on Hudson': Presidential gaffe
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Hyde Park on Hudson" is one of the most bizarrely muddled prestige pictures in recent memory. It's an intimate portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sort of, and enters the late-in-the-year prestige picture arena already outflanked by "Lincoln," a movie about another American president. In "Lincoln," the title character, incarnated by Daniel Day-Lewis, feeling thwarted in his attempt to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, raises his voice and bellows, "I am the president of the United States ... CLOAKED! In IMMENSE POWER!" It gets the job done. In "Hyde Park on Hudson," Roosevelt, played by Bill Murray, thwarted by his mother from making himself a martini, breaks into a kind of embarrassed laughter and reminds the few people in the room, "I'm president of the United States!" and he eventually gets to offer a cocktail to the King of England.
The problem is not that the concerns of "Hyde Park" seem trivial compared to those of "Lincoln," although they do. The problem is that the movie, directed by Roger Michell from a script by Richard Nelson, careens helplessly from oddly queasy love story to third-rate fish-out-of-water farce to murky romantic-intrigue fest and never hits a stride in any of those modes. Despite being populated by a cast of actors who, as the saying goes, could make something out of a reading from the phone book, the movie is a remarkably enervating experience.
Laura Linney plays Daisy (a real-life figure from whose diaries and letters much of the material for this was drawn) a cousin of FDR's who is summoned to "keep him company" one afternoon at the New York house of the title. "All he wanted to relax," Daisy notes in the movie's narration. Roosevelt, played by Bill Murray in possibly the actor's least confident performance since "The Razor's Edge" -- a picture you may not remember, and with good reason -- seems relatively tranquil in the huge library of the house (owned and apparently run by his mother even though it functions as a kind of Camp David avant la lettre) where he first shows Daisy his stamp collection.
The movie, it must be said, gives its viewer some credit for intelligence. Looking at the likenesses of then-contemporary world leaders on the stamps, Daisy wonders why these portraits hold such appeal for FDR. After all, he must have met all of them himself. "Not all," Roosevelt says as Daisy looks at a stamp featuring Hitler. The year in this film is 1939, and after showing us in some detail how the president's relationship with Daisy took an amorous turn (Roosevelt was, apparently, able to keep a cigarette lit under rather unusual circumstances), the movie shows Roosevelt committing a major act of diplomacy, hosting Great Britain's king and queen. These would be "Bertie" and Elizabeth, and, yes, they're the same characters who were portrayed in the Oscar-winning picture "The King's Speech," although they're played by different actors, Samuel West and Olivia Colman. (Not for prestige moviemaking is the playful meta textual overlap that allowed Michael Keaton to portray the same character in "Out of Sight" and "Jackie Brown.") They are very fussy and proper and concerned about Roosevelt's plans to feed them hot dogs at a picnic they've planned.
All this drawing room stuff plays rather jarringly even if you're not inclined to be a scold and recall that being depicted here are two world leaders who will soon be committing their respective countries' blood and treasure to a calamitous war. In a sense this movie is the anti-"Lincoln," almost to a fault. Not only does it not tell you much of anything about Roosevelt's policies or the ideology behind them, it barely gives the man any opinions. Well, he clearly likes martinis, stamps, cigarettes and women. The movie takes a bizarre turn into almost-thriller territory when Daisy, who had been under the impression that she was the only woman Roosevelt had been cheating on wife Eleanor with, discovers that the president has something like 700 other mistresses, and is asked to take that lying down, or sitting up, or something. No wonder the guy craved relaxation: Managing this kind of harem and being leader of the free world, or whatever they were calling it back then, had to take it out of a guy. A guy who couldn't walk, we are reminded.
After this strange interlude, it's back to the Bertie-and-Liz show, and the inevitable conclusion wherein a new British-American bond takes hold and Daisy settles in for what seems like a tolerable spell of mistresshood. It's all very civilized and ... colorless, and insipid, and trivial, despite the best efforts of a cast that, aside from the ever-solid Linney, also features the great Olivia Williams (as Eleanor), the great Elizabeth Marvel (an outstanding secret weapon this year in the likes of "Lincoln," "The Bourne Supremacy," and on television, "The Newsroom," done no favors here) and the great Eleanor Bron, who was Paul's love interest in "Help!" and, man, if you remember that movie fondly, prepare to feel old. FDR's cocktail protest described earlier was met with embarrassed silence, a reaction that is also entirely appropriate to this unfortunate motion picture.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.