Hyde Park on the Hudson **
Director: Roger Mitchell
Running time: 94 minutes
Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvel.
MOST of the press around the release of Hyde Park on Hudson has centred on Bill Murray’s turn as revered 32nd American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Oscar whispers were ultimately unfounded and Murray’s Golden Globe nomination proved unsuccessful, but his performance is a refreshing change for an actor whose recent Wes Anderson-lite roles have been unremarkable. The problem with the film is that it seems once the filmmakers snagged Murray for the central role they laid back, certain in the knowledge of a sure-fire hit.
Hyde Park on Hudson principally takes place over the course of one weekend in 1939 when President Roosevelt receives King George VI (West) and Queen Elizabeth (Colman) at his residence away from Washington, in Hyde Park. The audience follows events as they unfold largely from the point of view of Daisy (Linney), ostensibly a distant cousin of FDR’s that he likes to have at his side, but much more in reality.
This is where the film’s problems begin. The film is awkwardly bookended by two pieces of voice-over from Daisy but overall the film’s narrative voice is incoherent and inconsistent. In the second act Daisy is confined to the margins of the film and has little to do when the royals arrive as Bertie and Elizabeth seem to take over.
It would be easy to see the trumped-up roles of the royals as an ill effect of the success of The King’s Speech, but the real issue is that their character development only serves to highlight the distinct lack of any insight into the two supposedly principal roles of FDR and Daisy. The comparison with The King’s Speech has been one made by many critics, given the prominence of King George VI’s role, and it is not a flattering one.
The King’s Speech not only balanced comedy and drama better, but it had a classical Hollywood screenplay at its heart Bertie’s self-doubt, externalized in his speech impediment, is the obstacle he must overcome to prove to others and ultimately himself that he deserves to be king. Throw in the additional drama of his brother’s scandalous abdication and the impending war, not to mention the mid-film breakdown in Bertie and Logue’s relationship that threatens all their progress, and you have a real dramatic film with a driven plot.
This is the key element missing from Hyde Park on Hudson. The film meanders along with no sense of urgency. There is no sense of context of the impending war, and it does beg the question, ‘what is driving the film forward?’
Undoubtedly Daisy and FDR’s unconventional relationship is supposed to be the central focus of the film, but this falls by the wayside when the film goes all King’s Speech and an attempted shock plot-twist at the end of the second act fails to introduce any real drama because nothing is at stake.
It’s a shame really because Murray gives arguably the most disciplined performance of his career. Eschewing his normal warm, marbly tones and the use of his legs to play polio-stricken FDR, Murray injects a reticent charm into what could have been a rather staid figure. There’s genuine warmth and honesty to his performance, despite FDR’s own deceptions.
The whole cast put in commendable performances and in many ways the film humanizes and probes the relationship of George VI and Elizabeth much more than its vaunted predecessor The King’s Speech, but ultimately at its own detriment as this isn’t the story the filmmakers set out to tell. Samuel West actually gives a much more subtle portrayal of Bertie than Colin Firth and works well together with Olivia Colman. A spiky performance from an underused Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt is another positive lost in the film’s larger failings. Equally, Lol Crawley’s cinematography, which captures the lush, vibrant countryside and opulent gloom of the interiors so wonderfully, is wasted.
Like the film’s awkward balance between comedy and drama, the gender politics of a film in which a gaggle of women are seemingly more than happy to share FDR sit ill-at-ease in a film that really should be about all the women in the president’s life. But these issues are brushed aside as the film marches on to the triumphant picnic that ushers in the ‘special relationship’ between America and the UK bringing some sort of historical significance to the shambling 90 minutes that have preceded it.
Despite the cast’s efforts and moments of quality, Hyde Park on Hudson is far from director Roger Mitchell’s finest hour. The film’s screenplay, pacing and overall direction are as muddled as its tagline: ‘The President. The First Lady. The King. The Queen. The Mother. The Mistress. One weekend would unite two great nations… After cocktails, of course’, which is as desperate as it sounds.
Review By Richard Davis