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Still Life

by Laura Leon on January 10, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson
Directed by Roger Michell


While the critics immediately began positing Daniel Day-Lewis’ formidable performance in Lincoln for an Oscar, much less has been made of Bill Murray’s turn as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson. And that’s a shame, really, because Murray—clearly relishing the chance to play serious even as he imbues Roosevelt with a streak of devilish humor—is quite good. It’s not at all the stunt-casting move one might have expected.

Bill Murray as FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson

What’s a bigger shame is that Hyde Park on Hudson is a truly abysmal movie, all period touches and little character development. The story revolves around FDR’s occasional need to get away from D.C. and return to his home, which, obviously, came with the price of having to bring the entire Secret Service, military attaches, staff and entourage along for the ride. At the movie’s beginning, poor Franklin is suffering sinusitis, which he remedies with the flask in his top drawer and with whomever his mother, the indominable Sara (Elizabeth Wilson, too little seen) trots into his study for diversion. In the movie’s case, it’s primarily his many-times-removed cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), who moves, in short order, from confused awe to unbridled awe of the president.

That FDR—despite his disability—could prove so fetching a lothario may be a surprise, and Franklin, in a heartfelt chat with the stuttering King George VI (Samuel West), cannily remarks that people don’t want to notice a beloved leader’s shortcomings or impairments. The sole interesting part of Hyde Park on Hudson, which was written by Richard Nelson and directed by Roger Michell, is the interaction between Bertie and FDR, which deftly intertwines statesmanlike one-upmanship and man-to-man conversation. Too much, the movie relies on protocol comedy pitting the Brits, who are in Hyde Park to shore up American support for the coming war, against the Yanks, which in this case comes primarily in the form of Eleanor (Olivia Williams), who makes the poor royals sit through a Native American tom-tom performance.

Throughout, however, the movie is plagued by an inability to delve into its characters, specifically Daisy, who, despite being played by one of our most gifted actresses, never comes to life. Whether she truly believes she has a future with FDR, is just delusional, or comes to enjoy being one of a stable of playmates, we never know. In spite of a coda revealing that Daisy’s secrets came to light only after her death, in a diary she stowed under her bed, these questions remain not so much unanswered as unexplored. There are many historical inaccuracies, which don’t harm the movie nearly as much as its refusal to give us something to think about, to get behind—or not. FDR’s charm is one thing, but the moviemakers might have done so much more if they showed how he used that factor to get women, and nations, to do his bidding.