‘Hyde Park on Hudson’: Driving a different kind of Miss Daisy

Bill Murray is FDR in 'Hyde Park on Hudson'
Bill Murray is FDR in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’

Wieners figure rather prominently in Hyde Park on Hudson. Eventually, hot dogs do as well.

Hyde Park is the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s momentous meeting with King George VI of England during the summer of 1939. Except, it sort of isn’t. The movie is also about FDR’s many infidelities, including one with his distant cousin Daisy Suckley (don’t get too riled up – wife Eleanor was also a cousin of his as well). These two stories duke it out in Roger Michell’s light but clumsy historical look, with neither one emerging a victor.

Michell’s movie, set in the Roosevelt country estate in Hyde Park, New York, suffers because writer Richard Nelson never really makes clear what the emotional or political stakes are. In its early scenes, FDR summons spinster Suckley to come to him and assist as part of his planning entourage. An early scene in a field shows the president shooing his Secret Service men away so he can have a dalliance with her. The relationship would continue for some time, though it comes as a bit of a surprise when the sensible Suckley turns out to be devastated to learn FDR has eyes for others in addition to her.

Especially when Suckley is portrayed by an actress as estimable as Laura Linney, who is known for imbuing strength in adult women despite their flaws and folly. Her skills are largely wasted here. The same goes for Bill Murray, flirting with Oscar as the polio-ridden prez. His scenes with Linney, as well as the smartly cast Elizabeth Marvel (as private secretary Marguerite LeHand) and Olivia Williams (underserved but doing yeoman’s work as the toothy Eleanor), are all lacking in chemistry.

Murray’s game improves when he gets to show FDR’S callousness, which extend from the women he loves and ignores to the diplomats he hosts. Hyde Park’s better moments occur in his goofy exchanges with King George (Samuel West, wonderful as usual), humanizing the two most powerful men in the world as little more than boys, despite the size and cost of their toys. (As Queen Elizabeth, Olivia Colman also delivers a dignified, humorous performance).

Nelson manages to squeeze in the import of the king’s visit, as he needs to rally America’s aid for World War II, but one is never worried about an alliance seen as a foregone conclusion. So much of the dialogue centers on whether George and Elizabeth will eat a distinctly American hot dog at a picnic photo opportunity. It’s all a little silly. Had Nelson provided some commentary about the importance of image in diplomacy, Hyde Park might have stood weightier ground.

Despite praiseworthy costumes from Dinah Collin and loving cinematography courtesy of Lol Crawley, Hyde Park is a bipolar movie, bounding back and forth between Daisy’s soapy storyline and the more stately one involving the royals. And it is confusing. If Daisy is an omniscient narrator, why do so many scenes occur without her in the room? She couldn’t possibly have witnessed many of these private conversations to be able to recount them. It’s hard for a movie like Hyde Park to offer the measure of a man one gets the feeling she hardly knew well in the first place.

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