by Tony Dayoub
You would expect a film with a stately title like Hyde Park on Hudson to be the sort of movie one characterizes as "pleasant" or "charming." And in fact, it is both of those. But Hyde Park on Hudson is also quite extraordinary. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill), whose work until now I'd characterize as yeoman, seems inspired by his subject in this film. Hyde Park on Hudson depicts a quiet summit held by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and King George VI (Samuel West) at FDR's upstate New York estate—as seen through the eyes of his distant cousin and secret lover, Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney).
Chances are no one has ever heard of Daisy before Hyde Park on Hudson. This affords Michell and writer Richard Nelson the luxury of employing a character who is essentially a tabula rasa onto which the audience can project their own feelings about the events or personages depicted. With Daisy as the viewer's point of identification, one can experience wish-fulfillment fantasies about participating in, or even sparking, pivotal moments in history. It's one reason this type of historical drama, presented through the eyes of a passive bystander, should be approached with some trepidation. The character of Daisy is problematic because the story demands she be subservient to the outsized FDR, a fatal imbalance in any romance. Nothing the wonderful Linney does can overcome the limitations of Daisy, who is essentially a story device. One doesn't get a sense of her inner life outside of any concerns related to her affair with FDR. The role of Daisy is so thin, she seems to live only within the confines of the scenes in which she appears. When the president sends a car to pick her up, it's as if she's waiting just inside the door of her home, fully dressed and in the same condition as she was when she was dropped off the night before.
Fortunately, it's easy to see past this structural fault in Hyde Park on Hudson because the movie is less a romance—idyllically-shot handjob scene to the contrary—than a narrow account of a small event ignored by history. Hyde Park on Hudson's major draw is Murray's terrific performance as FDR. Before this, Murray's often failed to garner respect for his dramatic turns, Lost in Translation being a rare exception. And when Murray has won plaudits, the character he has played is essentially very close to himself. I feared that Murray's FDR would be a caricature not unlike one you'd find him playing back in his Saturday Night Live days. That's why it's gratifying to see Murray finally leave his trademark acerbic persona behind and really stretch as Roosevelt. Murray avoids the easy pitfalls of exaggerating FDR's notorious uppercrust accent or the kind of mugging we've seen from previous actors who have delivered a mere impression of the president. One can actually see Murray, with no trace of irony, relishing the opportunity to play a gentle, benevolent patriarch who takes the nervous King George—Bertie—under his wing as one would a protégé or perhaps even a son.
Credit Nelson and Michell for setting a smaller, intimate stage suitable for Murray's performance. Hyde Park on Hudson takes place far away from the usual, mid-1940's White House setting, minimizing the epic America-at-wartime scale that often predicates a larger-than-life iteration of Roosevelt. The film keeps the immediate stakes quite low. It sets up a climax that is at once cute and devastatingly crucial. Hyde Park on Hudson simply hinges on whether FDR can get Bertie to eat a hot dog in order to soften the royals' image for isolationist Americans wary of entering combat again so soon after the Great War. That moment provides Murray with a chance to transcend the constraints of playing a landmark figure in what is typically a studied period piece. It's a magical instant that carries Murray and Hyde Park on Hudson past the conventional stuffiness of the drawing room drama.
Hyde Park on Hudson is playing at the 50th New York Film Festival at 3:45 pm Sunday, September 30th and at 8:30 pm Saturday, October 13th at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023; and at 1 pm Wednesday, October 3rd and 3:15 pm Monday, October 8th, at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center's Francesca Beale Theater, 144 West 65th St (south side between Broadway and Amsterdam), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500.