Visually, the film is pleasurable to watch, but it is spoiled by Richard Nelson’s schizophrenic screenplay.
Having created for himself the persona of a hipster god (or, more accurately, a hipster Buddha), Bill Murray is living the kind of life few celebrities are able to attain. Aside from being universally adored, Murray only chooses projects that in some way seem interesting to him, and ignores the rest. As of late, this has involved a slew of characters that require very little effort and allow him to, essentially, play a version of himself. That is why it is so refreshing to see him acting again in Hyde Park on Hudson, and as one of America’s most loved presidents, no less. Unfortunately, the film itself is rather bland and feels as stifling as a wool blanket in summer.
The premise of Hyde Park on Hudson is, at a glance, rather intriguing. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) hosts the King (Samuel West) and Queen (Olivia Colman) of England at his childhood home during their first visit to the United States in 1939. In fact, it is the first time in history that a sitting king and queen have visited America, an almost unavoidable trip due to England’s inevitable war with Germany and the United States’ superior military power and wealth.
The movie gets itself in trouble, though, since the mechanism for the story relies on the third-person account from FDR’s cousin and eventual lover, Daisy (Laura Linney). As she narrates, Daisy describes how friendly and cordial the president is, always jovial and rarely in a foul mood. Their relationship is, at first, simply companionship, giving FDR a break from the stressful matters to which he must attend. After a short time, though, the two begin an affair, despite their relation to one another and the fact that he is married. We are also treated to the marital spats of Bertie and Elizabeth, though how Daisy would be privy to those exchanges is never quite explained.
Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson can never quite settle on which story they want to focus on and which stories will be secondary. Daisy is our narrator and entry into this world of the Eastern elite, so to make her relationship with FDR the film’s primary focus would be appropriate. Instead, though, we get equal time spent with FDR and his dealings with the royal couple and the strained marriage of Bertie and Elizabeth. Why is all of this necessary to telling an engaging and compelling story? It isn’t.
Michell is clearly very fond of the material and places his characters within beautiful settings or against stunning pastoral backdrops. Visually, the film is pleasurable to watch, but it is spoiled by Nelson’s schizophrenic screenplay. A playwright by trade, Nelson forgets that cinema is a medium of showing, whereas in theater it is more appropriate to inundate the audience with long monologues and dialogue-heavy interactions. In Hyde Park, nothing happens. We are told things are happening, a great number of things, but we never see them. The feeling is as if you left the theater to run to the restroom as quickly as possible and you missed the epic fight between Thor and the Hulk. Here, though, that epic fight never happens, but the anxiety is ever present within the audience.
Murray does a fine job as FDR, playing him like that jokester uncle who enjoys his own jokes more than the listener does. Linney is, unfortunately, completely wasted as Daisy, both because the role is dreadfully underwritten and Linney is far too talented of an actress for a character with less depth than a kiddie pool. The only bright spot is West as the King of England, the same character for which Colin Firth won an Oscar only a few years ago. Credit must be given to West for distinguishing his approach to the role from that of Firth. His Bertie faces similar struggles, but addresses them in a very different way.
Hyde Park on Hudson cannot be written off as a “bad” movie simply because there isn’t enough by which that judgment can be made. It is simply an unimpressive movie that is as bland as it is forgettable. | Matthew Newlin