Or The Creepy Sexual Relationship Between FDR and His Sixth Cousin
When you hear the name Franklin D. Roosevelt, what comes to mind? The New Deal? Leading America out of the Great Depression? The only US president so beloved he was elected to office four terms in a row? Yeah, me too. In fact, FDR is one of my favorite American heroes. An inspiring figure who conquered a debilitating illness to dominate the political landscape of the 30’s and 40’s, Roosevelt is a shining example of strength in the face of adversity.
According to filmmaker Roger Michell and his latest endeavor, Hyde Park on the Hudson, FDR’s legacy is his alleged affair with his sixth cousin.
To put how ridiculous this focus is, let me offer the following perspective. Imagine if somebody made a movie about George Washington but focused on how he kept his wooden teeth clean while crossing the Delaware. What if I made a movie about Thomas Edison centered on the relationship between him and his barber. 120 minutes of hair clippings and banter about baseball’s Boston Red Caps. And to quote the great Patton Oswalt, imagine a film about the time Albert Einstein had really bad food poisoning for four straight hours. Hyde Park on Hudson not only tells a story nobody needed to hear, it does so in such a Lifetime movie fashion, its 94 minutes feels like an eternity.
Essentially an English tabloid wrapped in a historical event, Hyde Park is set in 1939. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) is spending more and more time at his country home and has invited his sixth cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney) to keep him company. They go on long drives, have painfully slow conversations in his study and do creepy things in fields of flowers. The first thirty minutes of the movie sets the stage for theatrical disaster. Rather than show us their blooming relationship, the film resorts to an every five minute voiceover, telling us how much she is falling for the Prez. This leaves Linney, who is generally a very reliable actor, free to do nothing on screen. The character is there for the ride and has no effect on FDR or his handling of the country. When you craft a film around a historical footnote, you get a great deal of dead space.
The other piece of the equation isn’t much better. Murray’s FDR is accurate and at times interesting, but he’s failed by a clumsy script. Instead of fulfilling the promises of the whimsical trailer, screenwriter Richard Nelson paints Roosevelt as a creepy old man looking to get his rocks off. I’m all for showing the darker side of American icons, but when you do so with no service to the story or thought of why your subject is looking for something on the side, it becomes exploitative.
Luckily, this tone doesn’t maintain all the way through. The center of the film is a visit to Hyde Park by King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman). While Murray finally gets a chance to spread his presidential wings in his dealings with the English royalty, it’s too little too late. Issues with the film’s pacing, spiraling narrative threads and an OCD level of attention to the supposed sexual scandal, dooms the film to a big old helping of blah.
In the hands of the right filmmaker, any story can be told and told well. Unfortunately for Hyde Park on Hudson, none of the pieces properly fit. Bland artistic direction, a script without focus and some terrible performances by usually great actors sentence this movie to a lifetime in the bargain bin. Outside of one scene where FDR makes an impression on the young king of England, Hyde Park on Hudson does nothing to tell us more about the famed president other than a historically fuzzy tryst nobody cared about in the first place. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write that biopic about Washington’s wooden teeth. I’m thinking about calling it Dentures Across the Delaware. Can’t be any worse than this.
Score – 40%