11:42 AM EST, December 13, 2012
The music’s the best thing about the peculiar, demurely prurient “Hyde Park on Hudson,” starring Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Laura Linney as his spinster fifth cousin, Daisy Suckley. Setting the scene, and the mood, for this anecdotal account of FDR’s pre-war sexual escapades one weekend in 1939, composer Jeremy Sams soaks the movie in a sly and charming recurring theme, a habanera rather like a buttoned-down variation on the famous aria from Bizet’s “Carmen.”
It’s lovely. But it isn’t enough to lift this middlebrow, middleweight and middling project, adapted by dramatist Richard Nelson from his 2009 radio play, above its misjudgments and limitations.
Not that any writer owes us verifiable truth in the guise of drama, even when events can be verified, but here are the true bits in “Hyde Park on Hudson”: Months before World War II broke out in Europe, FDR and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited King George VI and the Queen of England (the ones from “The King’s Speech”) for a weekend to Hyde Park in upstate New York. This was a first: No reigning British king had ever visited the U.S. in this way, or any way. George VI sought FDR’s commitment to join the imminent war. FDR and Eleanor sought to give the royals a good old-fashioned USA-style picnic, with the insulting and lowly hot dog playing the role of the entree.
In 1991, when Suckley died, correspondence and journal entries revealed her clandestine relationship with FDR, an intimate and sexual one to a degree we’ll never know because she didn’t grind through the details. Nelson’s radio play, and screenplay, attempts to treat that weekend in the country as easygoing bedroom comedy, with just enough drama to make sense of the characters involved. The clucking royals (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) are shown as astonished by the skulky horndoggery afoot, centered around the man with the wheelchair, the pince-nez and the reassuring witticisms.
Linney’s performance is essentially voice-over work: Narrator Daisy talks a lot about her role in the events, both as insider and outsider. But the role itself never comes to life as a living, breathing, active participant, despite Linney’s skill. Murray offers some fine and crafty detail work as FDR, even if he struggles to capture the vowel sounds and the moneyed patrician quality of FDR’s public image. (He’s the reason to see the movie, despite the problems.) Olivia Williams strains against her own miscasting as Eleanor. Most of what’s wrong with “Hyde Park on Hudson” — directed, smoothly and without provocation, by Roger Michell — begins and ends with Nelson’s surface treatment of the events as he imagines them.
And now for the sex act, arriving, abruptly, 15 minutes into “Hyde Park on Hudson.” It’s destined to be this minor picture’s major talking point. FDR is out for a drive with Daisy, and he waves his security detail away so they can be alone, amongst the wildflowers and the breeze. After some hesitation she obliges the president with manual stimulation, which rocks the car a bit but is filmed from a careful and discreet distance. (It’s actually a ridiculous reason to slap the movie with an R rating; in Canada, the ratings for the movie have ranged between G and PG.) “Hyde Park on Hudson” barely knows what to make of the very scene it’s stuck with showing, so soon, just as we’ve settled into the notion of Murray doing FDR — let alone someone else doing him.
'Hyde Park on Hudson' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for brief sexuality)
Running time: 1:35
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