Awkward History Mars ‘Hyde Park on the Hudson’

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No votes yet Oscarman rating: 3.0/5.0
Rating: 3.0/5.0

CHICAGO – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – father of the New Deal, leader through the Depression, war president – and according to the new film “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” he’s horny, baby. Bill Murray portrays FDR, with support from Laura Linney, Samuel West and Olivia Williams.

This angle on history – that FDR had multiple mistresses and collected them like stamps – is probably the least interesting and most salacious aspect of the man. That part of him simply isn’t compelling, so the film meanders through the soap opera-type liaisons with a low energy, as if the production itself knows that they’re peddling some sleaze. There are some terrific performances in the film, including Samuel West as England’s King George VI (portraying Bertie from last year’s “The King’s Speech”) and Olivia Colman as his wife Elizabeth, but the usually memorable Laura Linney is reduced to tentative wallpaper as Daisy, the main paramour of the president. If this is the element of history we’ve all been hoping for, then this film gives us what we deserve for our naughty thoughts.

The year is 1939, and the United States is still feeling the effects of the Depression, and are being led for a third term by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray). The president is angling to get more involved in the second World War, and sets up a meeting with England’s King George VI (Samuel West), to lend U.S. support for the battle weary Brits. The summit will take place in Hyde Park on the Hudson River, Roosevelt’s upstate New York summer home.

Bill Murray, Olivia Colman, Samuel West
Don’t Get Up: FDR (Bill Murray), Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) and George VI (Samuel West) in ‘Hyde Park on the Hudson’
Photo credit: Focus Features

In preparation for this event, Roosevelt calls upon a distant cousin named Daisy (Laura Linney) to spend time with him driving about the countryside. In a secluded spot away from the house, FDR seduces Daisy, and the successful result is a new affair. This seems to be a open secret around the estate, including knowledge by FDR’s wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and his secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel). When the King and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) arrives, the goings-on within the household may affect the delicate war time negotiations.

FDR is played as a larger than life character by Bill Murray, happier in this portrayal than in any non-comedic role in recent memory. His holly jolly president is unapologetic about his carnal appetites, and in the days where personal information about the office holder was off-limits to the press (few Americans knew that Roosevelt was in a wheelchair, for instance), Murray’s FDR felt gleefully free to almost flaunt the power in regard to his personal life. The power angle is the best part of a decent performance from Murray, especially when his FDR is staring down the King of England.

The story is partially based on a memoir Daisy wrote years after the affair, and all the deceptions and physical manipulations are intact in the story. Most interesting is Laura Linney’s interpretation of the mistress role, it is low key to the point of searching for a pulse. Whether this was an attempt to show a woman’s lot in life in the 1930s, or just a character choice, it doesn’t work. The scenes between FDR and Daisy have little chemistry, which may be the point, but this also becomes so distracting that is actually spoils the pacing of the film.

The best part of the movie is the subplot involving King George. The royals act like petulant teenagers forced to visit grandmother’s house. The accommodations also include – gasp – a picnic with hot dogs (which allows for a cheap joke regarding the shape of said dog). It’s also funny to note that George, who has been severely overshadowed in history by his daughter Queen Elizabeth, gets his place in the sun in two consecutive movie years. Next up for his character, a sitcom simply entitled “Bertie.”

Laura Linney
Laura Linney as Cousin Daisy in ‘Hyde Park on the Hudson’
Photo credit: Focus Features

There is a wish, when experiencing this film, that this period of history would be shown in a different way, with something more substantial than the various dangerous liaisons of the randy president. In the short attention span of the post millennium, the best way to access a historical character may be to bring them to life in the movies. Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”) and Bill Murray both do fine jobs creating their presidential roles, but it is Lewis who works with better material. It’s not that Murray himself denigrates the memory of Roosevelt, but the story simply does him no favors.

Using this film as a template for future cinematic presidents, we look forward to “JFK: The Swingin’ Years” and “Bill, Monica and What the Butler Saw.” Maybe Laura Linney can again lend a hand.

“Hyde Park on the Hudson” continues its limited release in Chicago on December 14th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvel and Eleanor Bron. Written by Richard Nelson. Directed by Roger Michell. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald,

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