Hyde Park on Hudson depicts the period when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) hosted English royalty for the first time on U.S. soil. And to show that he was a solid multi-tasker, he also managed a few affairs with his staff and distant cousin, all while entertaining his important guests from over the pond.
Sounds intriguing, and could have been quite playful, if director Roger Michell took the approach as seen in last year’s My Week with Marilyn or even the recently released Hitchcock. Instead, he chose to stay somewhat subtle and serious; or more accurately: boring.
It’s 1939 and a crippled FDR has arranged for the relatively young King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) to stay at his Hyde Park home in upstate New York; which also houses his nosy mother (Elizabeth Wilson) and his sharp wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams). The goal of the royal couple is to enlist the United States help as an ally; for Europe is on the brink of another World War. But that’s just an ancillary part of this tale.
Narrated through the eyes of FDR’s “5th or 6th” cousin, Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), she becomes close with FDR. And the quasi-brash leader of America takes a particular liking to her as well. Upon the arrival of the royal party, Margaret feels like she’s walking on egg shells, despite the fact that FDR’s behavior is accepted by all whom occupy the isolated country mansion. Servants are always eavesdropping outside of closed doors; his mother tries to monitor his drinking; Eleanor realizes what he does when he’s not playing President, and accepts it; even though it makes others confused and uncomfortable. Eventually the learn-as-they-go royal couple starts to understand the inner-workings of the house, too. Yet still can’t deny that FDR is a somehow a class-act and is trustworthy.
That last paragraph probably, and therefore sadly, reads more charismatic than the 94 minute on-screen presentation. All the performances are serviceable; with special nods going to West as the stuttering King and Murray as the wheelchair-ridden President. And while everyone else is doing a decent job with their characters – all of whom receive ample screen time/development - it’s tough to get into this nominal history lesson of sorts, that isn’t quite sure if it wants to be satirical.
Going with a sturdy telling and being mindful of historical accuracies is always welcomed. But deciding to deviate from that path and/or not being consistent in the factual stuff, really throws a piece off. For instance, it’s a well-known fact the press were always kind to FDR in public settings. They never photographed him being helped into cars or being propped up to give a speech due to his very limited inability to use his legs. And that is articulated intelligently throughout. However, the poorly attempted comedic scripting injected within conversations between the King and Queen and/or FDR’s staff is sporadic, and consequently, awkward; to the point that it will fail to click with an audience.
Then there’s the quiet love affairs that are just stagnant and lack drama. And perhaps that’s just how it went down back then. But it doesn't make for an engaging cinematic telling. The filmmakers were almost too traditional in the mechanical delivery.
Overall, Hyde Park on Hudson sheds very little light on that pertinent moment in history, despite a handful of spot-on moments. It would have been best served just to let loose and have some light-hearted fun. The balance between authentic and playful is never quite found even though Bill Murray is doing all he can to get people onboard.
Hyde Park on Hudson is rated R and is now playing in the Tampa Bay market.