Hyde Park on Hudson – Movie Review

Take a step back in time to visit the home of FDR and Eleanor, but have a cup of coffee, first.

Bill Murray is getting more self-contained all the time, as he puts on his spectacles and murmurs his way through the part of Franklin D. Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson.” From what we gather, FDR was a laid-back man.

Every bit the statesman, he could initiate the most important stimulus program of the 20th century, declare war, and still put people to sleep. At least, that is what we gather from this interesting but slow period film from director Roger Mitchell.

Like Mitchell’s previous “Venus” this is a heartfelt story of love and loss. Also, like Venus, it take a patient person to sit still for the 94 minute run time and let the story, such as it is, sink in. It is hard to imagine anybody getting much out of this movie without knowing the back-story of FDR and his equally famous wife, Eleanor (played like a knife to the heart by Olivia Williams).

Although their love life was a mess, with FDR conducting several serious extra-marital relationships, they managed to act out a normal family relationship, for the good of the Office of President. Power is a potent aphrodisiac and FDR had it in spades. He was the hero of the working man, and, if we believe this film, the virtual savior of the insecure and feckless king of Great Britain, George VI (“Bertie”). Based on this screenplay, the president may not have cured the King’s stutter, but he certainly helped pave the way.

At the center of the movie is FDR’s burgeoning affair with his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley (Daisy, played by Laura Linney). The story is set in 1939 when the King (Samuel West) and Queen (Olivia Colman) visited the USA for the first time in history. Amazingly enough, the setting for the visit was determined by FDR to be his home in the country in Upstate New York.

The film is full of fascinating, probably accurate, historical snippets, one the most interesting being the complete lack of security surrounding the president. On the eve of the greatest World War we would ever see, and with Hitler storming through Europe like a killer in Times Square, the President has security details only now and then. For the most part he is free to romp around as he pleases.

Thank goodness for that or this film would not be nearly as interesting. For romp he does with Daisy and with a few others in the background. Unfortunately, the telling of the story of this affair is not nearly as interesting as the telling of the story of America forging an alliance with Great Britain.

Viewers under forty will be trying to figure out enough of the back-story to get anything out of the film while those over forty will want more of the inside story about how the USA and Britain thawed decades of frosty relations to meet the greatest challenge of their mutual existence.

Olivia Williams does a fine job as Eleanor, flitting around with her avant gard liberated women, whom FDR refers to as “she-men” (Did he invent the term?). Eleanor was not a happy camper in her role as wife and mother.

She took no pleasure in making love to FDR, so we are told, and she was never the favorite choice of FDR’s mother (excellently played by Elizabeth Wilson). Thus, there was a particularly steamy mix of emotions brewing when the King and Queen spent their weekend with the first family.

Those who see this film as a romantic story set in an exciting time in American history will get their money’s worth. Bill Murray does a good job playing FDR, but the role does not bring the potential of many of his earlier “dramedy” characters. He plays the part of a wise statesman, but we do not need a film to tell us that FDR was that. The friction between his wife, mother and extramarital lovers is nicely framed.

Apparently emotions so intense that an entire tray of Lady Astor’s plates fell and smashed to pieces, for no reason at all. However, this psychic phenomenon is not nearly as interesting as the statement regarding asking Mrs. Astor if she could spare a few dozen plates for the event, “No, talk with her cook,” responds Mrs. Roosevelt. “Lady Astor is so rich she doesn’t know what she has.” A wonderful throwaway glimpse into the lives the remaining Great Gatsbys of America during the Great Depression.

However, for those who do not appreciate the costumes, sets, cars and mannerisms of the 1930s, in and of themselves, this film will not be the most fascinating choice available. You have to want to know more about this period, and about the Roosevelt household, to enjoy the story.

It is hard to imagine anybody who has read a fraction of the reams of written material about Franklin and Eleanor watching this film to add to their insight. On the other hand, the movie does paint a warm and accurate picture of a world just beginning to figure out the horrors of which mankind is capable.

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Directed by: Roger Michell
Written by: Richard Nelson
Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney and Olivia Williams
Release Date: December 7, 2012
MPAA: Rated R for brief sexuality
Run Time: 94 minutes
Country: UK
Language: English
Color: Color