NYFF 2012: ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ just doesn’t make a memorable outing

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Hyde Park on Hudson

Directed by Roger Michell

Written by Richard Nelson

Hyde Park on Hudson explores a significant but somewhat obscure moment in history when King George VI (Samuel West) pays a visit to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray), making him the first English monarch ever to grace the United States with his presence. If only that historic meeting were the focus of the film. Instead, the story spends too much time fretting over the illicit affair between President Roosevelt and his distant cousin Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), the character who narrates the proceedings but whom the script fails miserably to make us care about.

Daisy acts aware of her dowdiness, but her admirable humility barely registers as a saving grace. Audience members might start to wonder, like members of FDR’s staff, what she’s doing there at all. She doesn’t appear personally invested in the historical goings-on, and she certainly doesn’t contribute much to the course of events. Her main contribution is the soothing effect she supposedly has on the president’s anxious mood, but their interactions seldom read as tender and frequently make less riveting viewing than FDR’s exchanges with nearly anyone else in the movie.

The burgeoning friendship between FDR and King George holds much more interest, and it is easier to see what draws the two men to each other. Both are powerful world leaders encumbered by a limiting infirmity, the president’s polio and the king’s now infamous stutter. Witnessing the two men reach a mutual understanding of each other based on shared hardships provides one of the most delightful moments in the film. Franklin and Daisy’s lackluster liaisons just can’t compete.

Even the royal couple are much more entertaining to watch than FDR and his mousy mistress. However, it does seem inevitable that the George and Elizabeth of this movie will be compared many times over to the same roles made popular in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. And sadly, the performances here will suffer in the comparison, unfairly so. Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) will suffer most. Whereas Helena Bonham-Carter’s Elizabeth got to be always self-possessed and an unwavering supporter of her husband, Hyde Park on Hudson insists on painting its version of the queen as ungracious, unsympathetic, and shrewish.

The big draw Hyde Park has in its corner relies on Bill Murray’s performance as Roosevelt. And in that respect, audiences won’t be disappointed. Murray brims with charisma. His portrait of the great man strikes a delicate and necessary balance between vulnerable invalid and confident authority figure. In fact, everyone on screen is acting their hearts out. Olivia Williams’s turn as Eleanor Roosevelt particularly deserves a tip of the hat. But even with all the notable acting talent on display, no one manages to breath life into the flaccid material they’re forced to work with.

Even with World War II looming in George’s future, the whole reason for his calling on the American president, the story here attempts to make a bigger crisis out of the King’s nagging wife and the political implications of eating a hot dog. And Daisy’s crisis, which ought to be good for a little extra drama, has her deciding whether she’ll put up with FDR’s unrepentant philandering. However, her storyline takes a backseat to the royal visit for so long that by the time focus swings back around in her direction, the narrative has a difficult time reestablishing relevance. So for all its historical insights and acting highpoints, Hyde Park on Hudson just doesn’t make a memorable outing.

Kenneth Broadway

The New York Film Festival celebrates 50 years and runs from September 28 to October 14, 2012. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.

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