For all intents and purposes, “Hyde Park on Hudson” should have you on hello. Instead, it may leave you feeling the tiniest bit revolted. Focusing on the events of a weekend in the life of 32nd U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, arguably the best-loved commander-in-chief of the 20th century after JFK, “Hyde Park on Hudson” is wily and seductive, drawing you in with its generous, charismatic personality — much like FDR himself, from all accounts. And then without warning, it springs on a slice of vulgarity, like a hand job in a customized Ford Phaeton.
FDR is played by Bill Murray, served excellently here by his unique brand of blasé cantankerousness. Roosevelt was loved and revered by the American public but he’s also known for having had the element of a dictator. He remains an enigma and a myth, and director Roger Michell attempts to crack the armor with a historical episode: a weekend visit from Britain’s King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) at Roosevelt’s estate in Hyde Park, New York, to seal an alliance against Nazi Germany.
That’s a whole movie plot by itself. In fact, had Michell built the film around it, “Hyde Park on Hudson” could have been a film on par with “The King’s Speech.” (Certainly Murray exerts the same, indomitable influence as Colin Firth, who played the stuttering King George.) Instead, Michell and writer Richard Nelson decided that a love relationship should be the centerpiece, bringing in Laura Linney as FDR’s distant cousin Daisy, with whom he had a torrid affair (according to the letters she wrote and hid under her mattress, subsequently discovered when she died at 99). Two movies in one is an extremely tight fit, but Michell feels that both deserve equal attention. On the one hand you have a personal and somewhat banal look at Roosevelt’s private life. On the other, a milestone in his political career that altered the course of history.
It doesn’t help that Daisy isn’t drawn here as the whip-smart, opinionated woman that later historians touted her to be but a bit of a fluffy spinster, unversed in political matters even though the world is on the verge of war. When FDR is in talks with the King about world events and alternative solutions, Daisy is pondering FDR’s true feelings toward her. Is it mere lust or true love? It’s hard to resist comparing Daisy with Eleanor (Olivia Williams), his wife, who is brittle and unaccommodating but radiates intelligence.
One of the movie’s great charms is its depiction of an era when information was scarce and the media was about 1,000 times less intrusive than it is today. This meant among other things that the president of the United States could have a mistress without the American public freaking out and endlessly airing its views on talk shows. That it all clashes with a visit from British royalty, just as Hitler is about to launch a genocide campaign, is hugely unfortunate. Roosevelt’s hovering, domineering mother (yet another formidable female in his life) could sort it out maybe, but that’s another movie.