Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Movie Review: Hyde Park on the Hudson

Hyde Park on the Hudson
Directed by:  Roger Michell.
Written by: Richard Nelson.
Starring: Bill Murray (FDR), Laura Linney (Daisy), Samuel West (Bertie), Olivia Colman (Elizabeth), Elizabeth Marvel (Missy), Olivia Williams (Eleanor), Elizabeth Wilson (Mrs. Roosevelt), Martin McDougall (Tommy), Andrew Havill (Cameron), Eleanor Bron (Daisy's Aunt), Nancy Baldwin (Mrs. Astor).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great President, and he deserves a great movie to be made about him. Hyde Park on the Hudson is not that movie – in fact, it’s one of the worst films of the year. The whole movie seems so silly and inconsequential, even when it tries to get serious about the issues it addresses. Like The Iron Lady last year, about Margaret Thatcher, I couldn’t help but think as I was watching Hyde Park on the Hudson that at the heart of the movie is one of the most powerful, most fascinating political figures of the 20th Century, and this is the story you want to tell about him?

The movie stars Bill Murray as FDR – and if that sounds like bad casting, let me assure you, it’s the least of the films problems. In fact, Murray is actually quite good as FDR. He least seems to be having fun, and tries his best to enliven the stillborn proceedings of the movie, ultimately to no avail. Anyway, Europe is on the brink of war, and King Geroge (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) are coming to visit America, in the hopes of convincing them to back them against the Nazis. The Cabinet doesn’t want FDR to meet with them, but he insists, but compromises on the location – instead of receiving them at the White House, he’ll do so at his mother’s home in upstate New York. The movie takes place over the course of a weekend, where it looks like the two sides will never come together, but ultimately, of course, do.

This probably sounds like a fascinating story – and it should be. But curiously, writer Richard Nelson and director Roger Michell decide to devote much of the story to Daisy (Laura Linney), a distant cousin of FDR, who in the months preceding the Royal Visit, also becomes his mistress. Daisy is quiet and fades to the background when around a large group of people, but comes alive when it’s just she and FDR. He had many mistresses, and his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) knows and doesn’t care (the movie implies, as many have, that Eleanor was a lesbian).

I will never understand people’s fascinating with famous people’s sex lives. Really, is the most interesting thing you can say about FDR is that he was a womanizer? When you have a movie about the Royals visiting him on the eve of WWII, do we really need to add in the sad little story of one of his many dalliances? And if you want to include that, shouldn’t you at least do something to make that woman interesting? Daisy is a dull, lifeless character. I know the normally great Laura Linney was trying to make her into a shy wallflower, but there is a difference between quiet and boring – and she doesn’t find it. And do we need endless scenes of FDR seducing her, including a rather tasteless one in the car, and their intimate moments together, that revolve mainly around stamps? Or how about the endless scenes of preparing for the royal visit? The story that should be front and center of Hyde Park on the Hudson is shunted to the background – and barely registers, so we can get the endless crap the movie delivers.

Perhaps Hyde Park on the Hudson would have played better had it not been for two superior recent movies. The first is 2010 Oscar Winner The King’s Speech – in which Colin Firth won an Oscar for playing the stammering King, that poor Samuel West is stuck trying to play here. West is okay I suppose, although his stuttering doesn’t seem natural, but he cannot hold a candle to Firth, and I spent the whole movie comparing his performance to Firth’s (it should be said that Olivia Colman does better with Elizabeth than West does). And the other movie is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which managed the difficult trick of making Abraham Lincoln into a towering political figure and a touchingly fragile human being, while still telling an important historical story. Because Spielberg handles that so masterfully, and Roger Michell handles this so clumsily, the film looks probably worse than it really is by comparison.

Still, perhaps that’s just me trying to come up with something nice to say about one the most dull, lifeless films of the year. How you can cast Bill Murray as FDR and still almost put me to sleep, I’ll never know – but Hyde Park on the Hudson accomplishes just that.

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