An unseemly look at the private life of one of America’s most revered commanders-in-chief is framed through the royal visit that cemented the United States’ alliance with Britain in “Hyde Park on Hudson.” Elevated somewhat by the stunt casting of Bill Murray as FDR, this frequently tacky tell-all amplifies one aspect of “The King’s Speech’s” appeal — and serves as an encore of sorts for stuttering King “Bertie” — by revealing celebrated world leaders to be as insecure and flawed as the rest of us. But Roger Michell’s treatment shares none of “King’s Speech’s” overcoming-adversity triumph, spelling far milder returns.
Naturally, Focus Features will want to trumpet comparisons to 2010’s wildly popular best picture winner, and a sufficient number of critics will likely oblige. However, “Hyde Park” is a different animal entirely, far more similar to Tom Hooper’s warts-and-all “John Adams” miniseries, serving both to humanize and scandalize its subject, whom Murray makes immensely appealing, despite his flaws.
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The film opens by introducing Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney), sixth cousin to FDR and, judging by a stash of letters and diaries discovered after her death, quite likely one of his mistresses as well. Playwright Richard Nelson clearly understood that he couldn’t get away with building his story around this little-known love affair, and so he contrives to find an angle by which to drop the bombshell, settling on the historic visit by King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) to America — the first of its type and, evidently, an irresistible foundation for farce.
Given the film’s strong comedic bent, Murray makes an inspired, though far from obvious, choice to play FDR. Despite Roosevelt’s crippled legs and advanced age, the actor has the mischievous twinkle in takes to suggest a spirit capable of charming fellow world leaders (and the occasional young lady) while also standing up to the two domineering women in his life — sexually disinterested wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and overbearing mother Sara Ann (Elizabeth Wilson). Because so much of the film centers on his behavior in private, Murray isn’t necessarily obliged to match Roosevelt’s stately demeanor before newsreel crews, instead portraying the man as a kindly, if slightly pitiful, old uncle. Linney’s Daisy, meanwhile, comes across as a coarse country girl in trance-like awe of her powerful cousin’s sophistication.
Set far from the political theater of Washington, D.C., “Hyde Park on Hudson” takes its name from the small New York town that was the President’s private Walden. It was here, at the family’s Springwood estate, that Suckley would visit Roosevelt and, according to some combination of Nelson’s research and imagination, offer stress relief of the carnal variety.
Inviting Daisy to join for one of his infamous breakneck drives through the country, FDR waves off his Secret Service detail and takes his far-younger cousin to a beautiful wildflower overlook, where he manipulates her into manipulating him in a titillating enough manner to have earned the film an R rating. Taken alone, such an episode might serve to demystify a hero (as Murray teased in Telluride, “It’s hard to play an American icon — he’s on the dime!”). But the film returns to the infidelity subplot again and again, following the story through Daisy’s eyes and giddily suggesting that FDR’s indiscretions were so obvious that the king and queen couldn’t help but notice during their visit.
“Notting Hill” director Michell has made a career blending high class with coarse elements, and that same off-color tendency creeps into what might have been a broad comedy of manners about how nervous the royals were about eating American hot dogs and so on. Instead, Nelson’s script constantly feels the need to reiterate the notion that presidents and kings really aren’t that special.
The film takes its greatest liberties when imagining the Roosevelts’ and Windsors’ private moments, depicting both sides as being self-conscious about how they’re perceived by their public as well as by one another. In one especially satisfying scene, FDR and his future British ally enjoy a candid meeting in the president’s study. Hoisting himself out of his wheelchair, Roosevelt crosses the room to his desk, coaching the insecure young king on the fact that their subjects look past their leaders’ flaws and see only the strengths. “Can you imagine the disappointment when they find out what we really are?” he asks pointedly.
However unsavory Michell’s motives, the director has a great eye for atmosphere, and even though the production was shot near London, Michell creates a vibrant facsimile of the U.S. East Coast countryside. All tech departments come together beautifully, from costumes to sets to d.p. Lol Crawley’s postcard-worthy widescreen compositions — extending even to the vfx work required to wither Murray’s legs.
Everything else about the actor’s transformation springs from within, including what could be described as a clever Keyser Soze-like con: Using his own infirmity to fool those around him, Roosevelt manages to entertain lovers in plain sight and manipulate the King of England into providing just the right photo ops to sway the American people to his side. If only Murray and Michell had embraced the culture-clash scenario at face value, instead of milking the situation for mere bathos.