Obviously, a lot more than awards consideration goes into a film, but it’s hard to avoid the faint whiff of awards-bait with Hyde Park on Hudson. For starters, it’s got the long-denied-an-Oscar Bill Murray playing both the leader of the free world, and a disabled one at that. And if you squint really hard, you could even imagine it as a sequel of sorts to The King’s Speech, since much of it takes place during a visit to America by King George VI, last seen trying to overcome his stutter in Tom Hooper’s 2010 Tradition of Quality Oscar juggernaut. But don’t expect any historical melodrama from Roger Michell’s film, or any big “Oscar moments.” This is a cool, collected, concise film — to its detriment.
Told from the point of view of Daisy (Laura Linney), a distant cousin who gets a call out of the blue to join President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Murray) at his rustic getaway one day (his mom thinks she might take his mind off things), Hyde Park at times plays like the flipside to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: There, private lives took a backseat to the vicissitudes of political horse-trading and the breathless drive of history. Here, everything is private. The president and those around him seem to exist in an ahistorical air pocket — there’s just an early reference to the Depression, a brief nod to FDR’s status as a master public communicator, and relatively little discussion of the looming war in Europe (though it’s acknowledged as the reason why the King is visiting in the first place). That’s all kind of the point, of course: Hyde Park on Hudson, the place, is described as where FDR goes to take a break from the worries of being one of the most-tasked presidents of all time.
You wouldn’t guess it from seeing him, though. Murray plays FDR as a man always on, head arched back and cigarette holder pointed to the skies. It’s a public act, to be sure, but for this man public is private. Speeding away with Daisy in his specially designed car, he cheerfully leads her into a lush flower field and — without breaking his optimistic, devil-may-care façade — gently makes her give him a handjob. Soon enough, our heroine is in thrall to the president. That doesn’t seem to bother First Lady Eleanor (a terrific and toothy Olivia Williams) much; she casually acknowledges FDR’s fondness for doting young females (interesting, since Linney is actually four years older than Williams). There even seems to be a kind of gentle acceptance of Daisy on the part of FDR’s secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), with whom he’s also having an affair.
Despite all these women, this is a lonely, twilight world FDR seems to inhabit. Or maybe it just feels lonely, because we rarely get close to any of the characters. Even Daisy seems devoid of personality: Linney, whose classical beauty suits the part, does what she can, but she hasn’t been given much to do except be captivated by the leader of the free world. Somewhat strangely, the film doesn’t really give FDR much to do either. We take it for granted that this is a man of power; presumably that’s what all these women are attracted to. Perhaps the film, running at a brisk 94 minutes, doesn’t want to feel redundant and assumes that knowledge on our part. But it’s still an odd choice: Even Lincoln kicked off with a scene showing the power Abraham Lincoln held over the average man. Somewhere in the filmic space, it helps to have something that makes us give a damn. But I’m not sure the movie itself does: Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson seem more interested in showing us the household getting ready for the King’s visit than in populating their handsome setting with people we can believe.
Ironically enough, the King (Samuel West), still stuttering, deeply insecure, and vaguely pathetic, fares better. When he confesses to Roosevelt that “Sometimes I think [my people] deserve better than me,” we can sense genuine desperation in his voice. There’s a potentially rich irony here: The man he’s talking to, after all, is one of the most beloved public figures of all time, a genuine myth in the American consciousness. But like so much else in this wisp of a film, the opportunity is soon lost. If Hyde Park on Hudson can’t be bothered to care for its characters, why should we?