Hyde Park on Hudson shouldn’t work. A historical drama about the history-making first visit of the King and Queen of England to the United States in order to meet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt while FDR carries on a romantic liaison with his fifth cousin should be right at home as a humorless mini-series on PBS. But casting Bill Murray as FDR was the first sign that this wasn’t a typical historical drama, and drawing on the general knowledge about King George VI and his stuttering problem now that everyone who didn’t know of it has since learned of it from the masterful The King’s Speech and using it for its comedic potential makes Hyde Park on Hudson perhaps the funniest historical drama ever made. Of course, it’s far from a perfect movie, but all of the actors, not just Murray, make Hyde Park on the Hudson a fascinating portrait of FDR.
In summer 1939, President Roosevelt (Murray) is running the government from his mother’s residence in Hyde Park, New York, where he is far more comfortable than Washington. While there he strikes up a romance with his fifth cousin, Daisy (Laura Linney), who Roosevelt often goes off with to wind down from the great stress of being president during domestic problems (the Great Depression) and foreign troubles (the upcoming World War II). Soon the romance is overshadowed by an unprecedented goodwill visit by King George VI, AKA Bertie (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) meant to drum up American support for England in the upcoming war. Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s progressive wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) is having problems with accepting the concept of treating the King and Queen like royalty, and these and other quirks that occur during the visit reveal much about the characters of both Roosevelt and George and lead to revelations about the truth about Roosevelt’s relationship with Daisy.
My friend Jackie, who teaches history, expressed concern to me about Murray as FDR. She pointed out that while Pearl Harbor is an awful movie, Jon Voight‘s performance as FDR is one of the movie’s few triumphs, and she didn’t think that Murray, as talented as he is, would be able to disappear into the role as effectively as Voight. On that point she’s correct, but while Voight might be a better overall FDR than Murray, Murray brings out the humor of FDR that is a perfect fit for the context of Hyde Park on Hudson. It works because while Pearl Harbor is (in part) about FDR the legend, Hyde Park on Hudson is very much about FDR as a human being who happened to be a great leader, too. That’s not to say Murray doesn’t try his damnedest to become FDR, and it’s by far the most impressive transformation of Murray’s career. Frankly he’s easier to accept as FDR when he has his spectacles on, since they cover up a good portion of Murray’s familiar face.
But Murray is just one piece of the puzzle: it must have been incredibly difficult for West and Coleman to follow in the heels of award winners Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter as George VI and Elizabeth, but they manage to define themselves by having more comedic takes on the roles, particularly in their reactions to the quirky way the Roosevelts run their home and a lot of American customs are hysterically lost in translation to the Royals. In fact, the film doesn’t really pick up until the Royals arrive. There are several strong scenes between FDR and George as they bond over their weaknesses — FDR’s polio and George’s stammer — and FDR takes a paternal role as he encourages George to be more confident in himself.
Because of these powerful moments the storyline focusing on Roosevelt’s relationship with Daisy ends up fading in the background. It’s a shame because Linney is a great actress, but the awkwardly funny interactions between leaders from opposite sides of the Atlantic are simply far more interesting. There is a lot about how the press kept things secret — like Roosevelt’s polio and his numerous mistresses — which definitely serves as commentary on our 24-hour news networks constantly exposing embarrassing details of politicians’ lives. But I can’t help but feel that more could have been done with this even though it’s just less engaging, but that falls on the shoulders of director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson (who adapted the movie from his play of the same name), not the actors. After all, it isn’t their fault that this movie ends up being The King’s Speech Lite… not that there’s anything really wrong with that. In fact, in a lot of ways this film is like an unofficial follow-up to The King’s Speech, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that either.
As a result, Hyde Park on Hudson is definitely a movie worth seeing even if it isn’t quite on the level of historical dramas like The King’s Speech or Frost/Nixon, but it’s the best analysis of FDR’s force of personality yet committed to film. That alone makes this a film that will play well with older audiences, and a must-see for Murray fans despite its flaws.
Rating: This funnier, Americanized companion piece to The King’s Speech humanizes great leaders who have flaws, just like this film (7.5/10).
New York Film Festival Screening Times
Sunday, September 30 3:45PM Alice Tully Theater
Wednesday, October 3 1:00PM Francesca Beale Theater
Monday, October 8 3:15PM Francesca Beale Theater
Saturday, October 13 8:30PM Alice Tully Theater