It’s OK for important men to have affairs because they work so darned hard all of the time.
Is that really the message from “Hyde Park on Hudson”? The film, adapted by Richard Nelson from his radio play, is so shy about digging in to either the political or personal lives of its subjects that it gives tacit assent. Despite a sly performance from Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Roger Michell’s film dances awkwardly between romantic drama and historical snapshot, not ending up much of either.
The year is 1939, and Roosevelt is holed up at his upstate New York estate that gives the film its title. Around him orbits a group of women who take care of him, including his mother, his secretary, and occasionally his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams). Added into the mix is a distant cousin, Daisy (Laura Linney), who is summoned to give FDR a little companionship.
How much companionship? We soon find out in a rather icky scene in a convertible that’s responsible for the film’s R rating. After this encounter, Daisy is smitten with the Prez, but he returns her ardor with a sort of head-patting affection. At one point, he tells her that he’d like to build her a house where she could go, alone, and miss him.
Which is weird, right? What kind of narcissist tells his mistress he wants a create a special place for her to wish he was there? The film glides over dicey emotional terrain like this, insisting that FDR is a good man, no, a great man, and his personal life isn’t anybody’s business. Then why, for heaven’s sake, did you make a radio play and a movie about it?
Further stacking the deck is the casting of Murray, one of our most beloved comic actors, to play FDR. Murray captures Roosevelt’s look and his upper-crust voice well, but his casting seems designed to help the audience’s sympathies align with the President. There is scene after scene of the President going out of his way to make others feel welcome and at ease in his presence. By comparison, the film treats Eleanor rather shabbily, as she smirks with condescension at almost everyone she meets.
That includes King George (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), who have come to Hyde Park seeking America’s support in the war against Hitler. This George is the same as the one depicted by Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech,” and the best scene in the film comes when he meets privately with Roosevelt. Over drinks, the President and the King find common ground, even some dry humor, in the isolation of their positions, while Roosevelt offers some words of fatherly encouragement for the uncertain new King.
Unfortunately, the film tries to inflate this meeting as a pivotal moment in history, but when the central drama of your film is whether or not the Royal Couple will eat hot dogs or not, you can tell it’s too slender a premise to hang on a film on.
Which takes us back to the adultery subplot, which often reduces Daisy to mooning about on the front porch, waiting for FDR, or running off in a huff when she learns she’s only one of several mistresses in his fold. (The film is also soggy with unnecessary and intrusive narration from Daisy, who at one point goes so far as to describe the weather one evening.)
Without much to work with, Linney can’t breathe life into her. In the end, “Hyde Park on Hudson” loses its nerve in trying to enter the hearts of its real-life subjects, preferring to watch from a careful, dull distance.