When Bill Murray as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is advising King George V of England how to be a respected national leader, “Hyde Park on Hudson” feels like a real movie, delivering entertaining insight into what separates the great from the merely capable.
The two men are alone in the president’s study in his mother’s Hyde Park home, drinking liberally and speaking freely. The young king is making the first visit to the United States by a British monarch, crossing the pond to seek America’s help in the coming war against Nazi Germany.
Murray/FDR is in his element, holding forth in benevolent supremacy over the king in need. Pulling himself upright, he props himself on the furnishings while dragging his useless legs across the floor, to reach his desk and take his seat. “No one ever mentions that I can’t use my legs,” he says, sitting regally at his desk after having made his point. His disability is, clearly, irrelevant.
But “Hyde Park” is not about how the president commands the floor, or his wartime relationship with the British. It is a beautifully filmed “I Love New York-on-the-Hudson” commercial wrapped around a leering little story of how FDR used and manipulated almost every woman around him.
The grinning, gregarious politician met here – Murray is wonderful – cheats not only on his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), portrayed as a businesslike maybe-lesbian, but also on his mistresses, secretaries and relatives. Laura Linney narrates the movie as the president’s impoverished fifth cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, procured by Franklin’s mother to come to Hyde Park “to take his mind off his work.”
As the confused cousin later explains, “He said I helped him forget the weight of the world.” Perhaps it would sound more noble if we didn’t also have the image of him waving off his bodyguards so he could pressure his distant relative into manually pleasuring him in the driver’s seat of his car.
Again, Daisy’s matter-of-fact voiceover: “We were now not just fifth cousins, but very good friends.”
But from our backseat view, frankly Franklin, it was creepy.
The film claims inspiration from journals kept by Daisy that went unfound until after her death. There is some dispute on what the writings actually indicate about her relationship with the president, but the film leaves no doubt.
It is obvious even to King George and the queen (Samuel West and Olivia Colman), who are visiting for a weekend and really have better things to worry about.
Some filmgoers may have had enough of King George V – the Bertie of “The King’s Speech” – but the royals’ presence in the unwelcoming halls of Hyde Park provides an anchor to this otherwise unreal exercise. The rest of the characters are simply shadows behind Franklin Roosevelt’s light.
Murray is formidable, and makes the film worth seeing himself, despite its flaws. He presents a fully fleshed version of the prewar leader, not a mere impression of a rich politician chopping on his cigarette holder.
Murray long ago gave up broad comedic exaggeration (think the reckless brio of “Ghostbusters”) in favor of nuance and depth (“Lost in Translation”), and helped by the distance of history, his FDR makes us feel we are personally within the great man’s orbit.
Linney’s Daisy fares less well. By the time the rich Roosevelts took over the country, the poor relations had long been relegated to supporting roles, Daisy dutifully accepts. By becoming part of the president’s inner circle, she gains an importance she never expected in her years of caring for an invalid aunt, when they were so poor “we couldn’t afford secrets.”
Even though it is largely Daisy’s story being told, the character never breaks out from the role of companion and helpmate, rising no higher than being a sometime confidante, and then only as witness to FDR’s charming, joking assessments of others – nothing of true consequence.
The story plays out over the time of the king’s visit, with Daisy’s personal drama piled atop events that will determine the fate of the free world, and with little distinction made between their relative importance.
The king comes out of it fairly well; Daisy enjoys no such cinematic transformation.
As said earlier, the movie looks stunning – golden fields, interesting houses, spot-on period accoutrements. It would be interesting to bring Murray back for another go-round, maybe after the war has begun and he can really get down to business.
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman
Director: Roger Michell
Running time: 94 minutes
Rating: R for brief sexuality
The Lowdown: Murray gives a standout performance in an uncomfortable story about Franklin Roosevelt’s sexual diversions.