Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams
Director: Roger Michell
Rated: R Run Time : 94 min
Hard to imagine, but chit chat about the bedroom liaisons of our political leaders was once the sort of thing whispered around cocktails parties, but rarely aired in public like dirty laundry hung on the public line. So it was that Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to get elected four times, and steer the nation through the great twin disasters of a depression and a war, while the general public remained largely unaware of his crippling polio or his multiple extramarital affairs. Hyde Park on Hudson meanwhile, drapes all those old soggy knickers out in the breeze, along with some fresh revelations gleaned from the diary of Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley, the president’s confidante, distant relation, and apparently, his lover.
When we meet her in the film, Daisy (Laura Linney) lives a quiet, bucolic existence in a farmhouse that looks like Thomas Hart Benton painted it. She is summoned from this restful world to come visit her fifth cousin, who happens to be the leader of the free world, and who prefers to summer at his mother’s estate in upstate New York. After some polite hello’s the Prez (Bill Murray) invites Daisy to check out his stamp collection , which actually works on her, though if you are the POTUS, your hobbies are bound to be more intriguing than the average Joe’s. Soon the odd pair are willing away their afternoons taking joyrides through a lush country side coated in lavender and warm sunshine, just the spot for a discreet liaison. Sure enough, with the secret service waved to a safe distance, and Glen Miller on the radio, the sedan starts a knocking, and we are treated to the spectacle of the commander in chief getting a handjob. The movie never recovers from this bit of creepiness, and tawdry feeling pervades the remainder of the picture.
What follows is a storyline about the King and Queen of England’s unprecedented visit to Hyde Park in 1939, in an attempt to curry FDR’s favor, something nearly everyone in the film seems to be doing. No stranger to fame, Bill Murray tries mightily to slide into the role of a great man, but it’s not a comfortable fit. Murray’s Midwestern work ethic slips through FDR’s polished patrician haughtiness, and Murray’s snarky, no-bullshit comedic bluntness makes him genetically ill suited to playing a master politician.
Poor Linney fares worse; her character is such a bland dishrag that she can do little but stand around looking befuddled and wan. Olivia Williams does capture a bit of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous brio, though she’s perhaps just a tad too lovely a face to be believed as the First Lady. Samuel West makes a good effort at stamping his imprint as George VI, or “Bertie” as made famous by Colin Firth, and he’s expertly paired with Olivia Colman as the Queen. With war looming, and the fate of the empire in doubt, the Royal Couple are busy fretting about the accommodations, and with a luncheon where they’ll be forced to eat aYank horror called “Hot Dogs”. How common!
The film works best in these lighter moments, then when delving into the shockingly dull central “romance” or in the president’s weird, extended sexual fling with his secretary Missy Lehand (Elizabeth Marvel), who tries to indoctrinate Daisy like a sister wife.
We learn about Franklin’s seduction techniques, but are offered precious little insight into his strengths as a chief executive. If there is a point to be gleaned, it is that the president conducted business in the same way he handled private affairs; by using the potency of his personality to awe, coerce and overpower.
It’s not clear how helpful this message really, is, as the movie is too caught up in mythologizing the era, to really let its seedier aspects comfortably squeeze into the scrupulously tasteful period detail. Hyde Park on Hudson tries to push modern concerns on history, and ends up getting lost in the static between them.