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Film review: 'Hyde Park on Hudson'

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“Hyde Park on Hudson” is about a time “when the world still allowed itself secrets,” specifically the secret that President Franklin D. Roosevelt carried on a long and intimate relationship with his distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley.

The original archivist for FDR’s presidential library, Daisy left behind a treasure trove of letters and diaries after her 1991 death that revealed the deep nature of the friendship, which many have conjectured contained a sexual element. This correspondence formed the basis for a nonfiction book by Geoffrey Ward, a play by Richard Nelson and now this film, also penned by Nelson.

Bill Murray, who bears not even a passing resemblance to Roosevelt, is nonetheless convincing in the role of a great man who was also a supremely talented politician, playing the people around him like well-tuned instruments. Murray's FDR knows his powers of persuasion, using his blueblood sense of entitlement and patrician charm as tools to quietly command those in his sphere, despite a body crippled by polio.
But this story is really Daisy's ... or at least it should be.

Daisy is an aging spinster trapped by familial obligations who's all agog to receive a surprise invitation to visit the president at his ancestral home in upstate New York. He asks about her limited travels and the places she'd like to go, and Daisy admits, "To be honest, I'd love to go just about anywhere." Any opportunity to get out of her drab life of near-poverty, caring for her sickly aunt is a boon.

Laura Linney plays Daisy in a subtle, passive performance in which her character mostly reacts to the people she encounters. She serves as the audience's eyes and ears, and for the longest time we almost forget she's there, like a hostess who shows you around but isn't really part of the party. The president's servants and guardians -- often one in the same -- soon come to regard her as part of the decor, and accept her closeness to him as a matter of course.

Was theirs a relationship of passion, or simply a deep and abiding companionship? Director Roger Michell and screenwriter Nelson are coy to the point of obduracy. After a brief fleshly encounter, Daisy comes to see FDR as her closest friend -- indeed, her only one. He shows her a small cottage he has built where he means to retire, and asks that she share it with him. "When you miss me, come here and miss me," he invites. How nice of him.

Daisy wilts in the face of the powerful presence of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) or FDR's secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), whose portfolio also appears to controlling his drinking and keeping the elderly, opinionated First Mother (Elizabeth Wilson) in check. Daisy soon learns that Roosevelt always kept a circle of women around him, competing for access and in some cases intimacy.

All this sounds like enough for a compelling tale, but then the film goes further by relating the visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth of England. It's the first visit by a monarch to the former colony, but now the royals have come hat in hand asking for America's help in the brewing world war.

The young, newly-crowned king and queen (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) are on edge, with the queen regarding every little American provincialism as an intended slight. She becomes obsessed with FDR's intention to feed them hot dogs at a picnic.

This long sequence is in many ways the best part of the movie, especially a late-night drinking encounter between king and president, with the latter treating the former like a well-behaved schoolboy in need of complimenting. But it ultimately detracts from Daisy's journey, which ostensibly is what this is all about.

"Hyde Park on Hudson" is an odd duck of a film. I had expected it to be much more of a comedy than it is, though there are plenty of amusing moments. And it can't quite decide if it wants to focus on Daisy, Roosevelt or the British royals.

I enjoyed the movie for what it is, though I wish it had a better sense of itself.

-- Christopher Lloyd is co-founder of The Film Yap.

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
Directed by Roger Michell. Written by Richard Nelson. Stars Laura Linney, Bill Murray, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson. 94 min. Rated R: for brief sexuality. Score: 3 out of four; 4 out of five; B out of A-E.
Last modified: January 2, 2013
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