The 1939 visit of King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), to the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (Bill Murray) country estate in Hyde Park, New York, was a media circus and a significant event in the strengthening of American-British relations on the eve of World War II. This is the setting of Hyde Park on Hudson catalogued via the unique perspective offered by Daisy (FDR’s sixth cousin) and civilian observer who becomes [one of] FDR’s mistresses. This could have made for quite an effective character study. But, Hyde Park on Hudson is simply an unfathomably dull film.
Linney’s voice-over narration – inspired by the posthumously published letters or her then-secret relationship with FDR – has far too much bearing on everything, but as Daisy wasn’t dining with the royalty, nor in the room when FDR and the King talk, doesn’t have conviction. As a result, we feel like we are watching exactly what Daisy is telling us, however true that may be. Daisy is such a meek, naïve character - lured into an affair with President, believing it to be love – that her devastation at the realization that he’s not only a married man, but that she’s not his only mistress, does not evoke any sympathy. Almost every sequence lacks energy and there are few cinematic qualities. If one were watching this tale in their living room, it would still be tedious sit. It is relatively pleasant, mind you, but unlikely to stir even a single emotion.
Individual scenes are poorly photographed and the direction from Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill, Enduring Love - a couple of decent films) is uninspired and unimaginative. The synthetic dialogue results in soporific exchanges, and while we should care very much about these people, they just aren’t remotely interesting. We are meant to believe that this strange man was leading the United States into another World War? Instead of heightening the awkwardness of the cultural difference for comedic purposes, as is the attempt, the exchanges come across as so blasé that it is near impossible to remain engaged. For a film that runs a shade over 90 minutes there is a lot that could have simply been left out – but that wouldn’t have constituted a feature film - with a more intimate focus on the relationship between FDR and King George VI welcomed.
In addition to the peculiar choice of camera perching – lurking behind glass doors, through car windshields and even from the POV of the front of the car as it is being driven through a field of flowers – and shooting distances – reverse shots from opposite ends of a large, dimly lit study are an attempt to convey emotional distance - there is an overemphasis on focal changes. In almost every sequence someone or something is distinctly out of focus, and often the focus is being shifted directly before a cut, completely negating the point and effect of these changes. The photography aggravated me no end.
While Bill Murray has worked hard to build an impression of FDR, a man crippled by polio, this Golden Globe nominated performance is FAR removed from his best work. Linney, Colman (somewhat feisty, and suitably perplexed), Olivia Williams (Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor) and Elizabeth Marvel (his secretary, Missy) are also far from their best, though West, who portrays Bertie, the role Colin Firth won an Academy Award for back in 2010, is impressive.
West balances dismay and self-deprecation, with earnestness and brewing confidence. He is a sympathetic character, and the scene featuring he and FDR as they share drinks, and stories about themselves – as simply men – is easily the film’s strongest arc. They reveal their flaws and embrace each other’s, share their doubts about upholding their responsibility to their countries and even complain openly about their marriages, while finding mutual respect over the course of the night. It is this relationship that offers an inkling of intrigue, and it the two best performers at their best within the film.
The frightfully forgettable Hyde Park on Hudson lacks a clear agenda and as a result, none of the angles are particularly interesting. With many scenes of aimless driving, and too much talk about stamp collections and hot dogs, not a lot actually happens in this rote historical drama. Not even the great Bill Murray can give this enough of a lift to recommend.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.