By Forrest Hartman
Hyde Park on the Hudson
1½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for brief sexuality
Available on: on demand
“Hyde Park on Hudson” is one of the more bizarre releases to hit video in recent months. It sports an A-list cast led by Bill Murray and Laura Linney, and it centers on a key period in the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The movie also has a capable director in Roger Michell, the man who made the outstanding 2002 thriller “Changing Lanes” and the even better 1999 romantic comedy “Notting Hill.” Traditionally, a historical drama backed by that level of talent could expect attention during movie awards season. “Lincoln” is the ideal example. Director Steven Spielberg’s much-lauded drama about the 16th president of the United States received 12 Oscar nominations. But “Hyde Park” is the anti-“Lincoln.”
Where the Spielberg drama soars, Michell’s lightweight look at American history is so messy and ill-conceived that it plays like a parody of itself. How does a film with so much on-paper potential fail so utterly? The problems begin with the Richard Nelson screenplay, an oddly structured work that aims to enlighten viewers about U.S.-British relations in the days leading up to World War II. The movie fails to realize that ambition for several reasons, one of which is Nelson’s inexplicable fascination with hot dogs. The final act of “Hyde Park” is centered on a picnic where King George VI of England is invited to dine with FDR. During the picnic, wieners are served and viewers are asked to believe that this is a defining moment in U.S.-British relations. In reality, the choice of food was as inconsequential as Michelle Obama’s bangs.
The focus on hot dogs does, however, maintain the general course of “Hyde Park,” which is all about minutiae. If there’s one thing Michell finds more interesting than hot dogs, it’s FDR’s supposed sexual relationship with his distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. Building a picture around presidential impropriety is nothing new, but “Hyde Park” dubiously centers itself on suppositions that many believe to be false. There are scholars, in fact, who argue that a sexual encounter between Daisy and FDR is extremely unlikely.
Nevertheless, Michell spends much of the film painting FDR as not only a womanizer, but a ruthless cad. One can, of course, forgive filmmakers for taking liberties in a fictionalized history, but one can also hope for good taste.
The flaws in “Hyde Park” are particularly obvious because the cast is so much better than the material. Murray is typically terrific, or at least as terrific as one can be given the version of FDR that he was asked to portray. His work earned the movie it’s only major awards recognition, a best actor Golden Globe nomination.
Linney is also a talent, but she portrays Daisy as a mousy, forgettable woman who is mostly in awe of her famous cousin. That makes her character and her supposed relationship with the president exceedingly dull.
With so little to invest in from a character standpoint, viewers must turn to the subplot about the King of England’s hotdog picnic. That’s hardly the stuff of political legend.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include an audio commentary by Michell and producer Kevin Loader.