Sunday, December 23, 2012

Movie Review: "Hyde Park on Hudson"

In so many movies and plays (Annie comes to mind most frequently), FDR is portrayed as almost a benevolent, godlike figure, probably the way many in the country saw him while he was president. Hyde Park on Hudson, the latest film from Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Venus), gives Roosevelt more than his share of flaws while telling the story of his relationship with his distant cousin, Margaret "Daisy" Stuckley.

It's 1939. FDR (Bill Murray, surprisingly effective) and his staff are summering at Hyde Park, his mother's home in upstate New York. Concerned about all that is happening in the world around him, he is in a state, and Mrs. Roosevelt sends for Daisy (Laura Linney) to help distract him. At first, Daisy is somewhat intimidated by her cousin and all the pomp and circumstance surrounding him, but as they spend more time together, driving around the beautiful New York countryside, she finds herself beginning to worship him, and their relationship deepens.

With England just on the brink of entering World War II, the newly crowned King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (a terrific Olivia Colman), come to America to visit the president and ask him to come to England's aid. The royal couple is somewhat shocked by their experience in the more rustic Hyde Park than the grandeur of the White House, the familiarity of Eleanor Roosevelt (a marvelously droll Olivia Williams), and the lack of social graces of their hosts. Yet the King and Queen know the future of his country—and his monarchy—depends upon asking the president for help.

When the film depicts the dynamics of the royal couple interacting with each other and the Roosevelts, the film is wonderful. But when the film shifts gears to explore FDR's relationship with Daisy—and others—the film completely loses its focus and charm. It's interesting that a film essentially about a relationship between two people is at its least effective when portraying that relationship, and I'm not so sure if that is because the relationship made me somewhat uncomfortable or if Linney is woefully miscast and doesn't have much to do but vacillate between acting flighty and taciturn.

Murray, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance, does a terrific job as FDR. The sly humor Murray brings to nearly all of his performances works well here, and he isn't afraid to make his character seem unsympathetic at times. But for me, the movie belonged to Colman and West as the royal couple; Colman has some of the funniest lines and her delivery is priceless, and West brings an impressive combination of bravado and vulnerability to a man seen in film just a few years ago. Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense) brings an interesting physicality to her portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt, along with an amusingly jaded cynicism.

This is a somewhat enjoyable movie made more so by several terrific performances. I'm sad to see Linney underused (if not misused) but was surprised by Murray, Colman, West, and Williams. I wouldn't run out and see this one, but it's definitely worth catching on DVD or cable, if for the performances alone.

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