(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on December 14, 2012.)
Every single last performance in Hyde Park on Hudson is noteworthy. However, the film is also proof positive that performances are only part of a movie; they are the colors that the director uses to make you sit up and take notice. Keeping with the painting metaphor for just a little bit – what good are colors if the canvas, the paint, the brush, and more importantly, the painter himself aren’t up to the task? Director Roger Michell has made a movie quite different to those he’s written and directed in the past; films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, and Notting Hill all had such unspeakably great souls and hearts to them that the performances only helped to transcend the script as written. With Hyde Park on Hudson, it’s as if Michell wanted to make the very antithesis of the films he’s made before, which isn’t such a bad thing to do. However, he’s lost the greatest thing about his former movies: the reason to care.
In each of Michell’s previous films, we’re hooked by the characters and their personalities, and we’re also given to know the exact gravity of the situations presented for each of the characters. With Hyde Park on Hudson, Michell drops us into this tableau without much fanfare, almost relying solely on our knowledge of history to help us understand the film. To those who know the history and minutiae surrounding President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, this film will undoubtedly read as a refresher course with a few unrelated extras. For the rest of us who didn’t quite pay attention to the details in US History during our grammar school or high school studies (yes, I’m sheepishly raising my hand here), one would hope for some type of insight inside one of the most fascinating Presidents our country has ever seen. Instead, we’re given a somewhat funny look at one moment in history, which has then been surrounded by a stifling miasma of a trumped-up love story. (Maybe it’s because Michell is working from someone else’s material; Hyde Park on Hudson was originally a radio drama by Richard Nelson broadcast in 2009.)
The love story involves Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney), who has been personally invited by President Roosevelt (Bill Murray) to his estate at Hyde Park-on-Hudson; the two are distant cousins and childhood friends, yet we’re given to believe through stolen moments and innuendoes that they’re meant to be something greater. As history (and Wikipedia) tells us, Suckley winds up being one of Roosevelt’s most trusted confidants, with hints of either an intellectual or physical romance happening between them; Hyde Park on Hudson plays up those hints and seems to almost revel in Roosevelt’s alleged womanizing. Combine that dramatic arc with the famous visit from King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), and you have a recipe for the usual Michell-like hijinks.
While there is some comedy to be found, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a historical drama, not some lighthearted romp, as some were led to believe. It’s more of a thoughtful look at a wheelchair-bound President trying to make the best of his situation by surrounding himself with those that he loves. And it goes without saying that Bill Murray’s characterization of FDR is going to garner huge acclaim, simply for the fact that one cannot even begin to imagine the depth and range of Murray’s abilities. He is the magical centerpiece of this movie, which has taken a huge gamble on casting an actor known mostly for his comedic talents and his deadpan snarkery. Murray gives a lovely, lively, and muted performance as one of America’s most beloved Presidents; while we see a slight comedic underpinning rooting his portrayal, Murray wastes no time in becoming Roosevelt, sinking himself into this very meaty role with vigorous aplomb and a slight dose of carefree flippancy. Matching him with a soulful, staid, and wistful performance is Laura Linney, playing the role of the invited interloper with a subdued, yet eager air. There’s not much she can do but stand by and watch as things happen outside her influence, and she’s more or less at the President’s beck and call – there when she’s wanted, out of sight when she’s not.
In the days and weeks following the screening of this movie, I find myself wondering what its purpose is and what the filmmakers hoped to say with it; I must admit that I’m at a loss. Watching a movie that follows flighty, privileged members of society that feel like precursors to the fabled 1% doesn’t make for great viewing; it feels like an unfunny episode of “Seinfeld,” where there’s much ado about nothing. I can’t help but think that this movie was made for the people who enjoy salacious and sundry conjecture about the love lives of others. There are a few precarious circumstances that could result in FDR and Margaret getting caught by Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams), but I guess it’s more about the innuendo and the implications rather than anything else of substance. Movies like Hyde Park on Hudson always feature long stretches of nothing happening and very little objectionable content, which makes for great airplane viewing; however, if you’re going to spend money on it looking for something enlightening and engrossing, don’t be surprised if you feel a little gypped at the end. Like I said, the performances are outstanding in every regard; but when they’re backed up by an empty construct, the resonance won’t linger much afterward.