One can't help imagining former president Bill Clinton enjoying the bejeebers out of the movie Hyde Park on Hudson. This dramatization of a chapter in the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt offers up two salient comforts for the oft-embattled Bubba.
1. It tells of a time when the press played ball with the presidency. Press photographers never photographed the polio-afflicted president in his wheelchair.
2. It offers the nostalgic notion that a hard-working U.S. president deserved a mistress or two and didn't need to be hassled about it.
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) goes positively woozy for this patriarchal golden age, telling two different stories centred on Roosevelt, played with urbane panache by Bill Murray.
The first is the "special relationship" FDR enjoyed with Daisy (Laura Linney), a "fifth or sixth cousin," who was summoned to Roosevelt's summer home to offer some womanly diversion for the president. This was 1939, the era when the unrelenting grind of the Great Depression was giving way to the threat of global war. Seemingly a rustic naif, Daisy is quick to intuit her role in providing the president (literally) with a little release.
The irony here is that Roosevelt was already surrounded by strong feminine figures, including his teetotaling mother (Elizabeth Wilson), his earnest proto-bleeding-heart-liberal wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and his deferential but formidable secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel).
The second story is the formation of a more formal special relationship incorporated when King George VI (Samuel West) comes visiting the Roosevelt estate with the Queen (Olivia Colman) on a diplomatic mission to seek an ally in the inevitable showdown between Britain and Germany.
The King is nonplussed by an itinerary that culminates in a picnic where the King and Queen will be expected to indulge in the American repast of hotdogs. The two are seen in hushed panic discussing the deeper meaning of this event ("Are they trying to make fun of us?" worries the Queen), distastefully phrasing the word "hotdog" as if they were made from actual dogs.
At least this aspect of the film has a satisfying arc. It almost functions as a mini-sequel to The King's Speech, with the stuttering Bertie commiserating with Roosevelt over their inconvenient afflictions. If Bertie found a friend in The King's Speech, he finds a father figure here.
But it is the story of the low-key love affair between Roosevelt and Daisy that confounds. (The affair was discovered when the real-life Daisy's written memoirs were found under her bed.) Murray may be charming and Linney is the picture of wistful dignity, but one is still left with an uncomfortable exploitative dynamic -- he is wealthy and powerful and she is impoverished and powerless -- that leaves a bad taste in this oh-so-tasteful romp.
Selected excerpts of reviews of Hyde Park on Hudson.
"A languid, tedious effort that never bothers to get to the heart of its characters, the film is a shallow reading of a significant time told mostly from the viewpoint of a lifeless character."
-- Connie Ogle, Miami Herald
"Murray's spot-on portrayal of a man juggling myriad pressures and demands, from petty to momentous, marks one of the film's greatest strengths."
-- Ann Hornaday, Washington Post
"The movie hinges on Murray's turn as FDR, and frankly, he comes up wanting. He looks and sounds nothing like the man, and barely makes an effort to rectify that."
-- Roger Moore, McCLatchy Tribune News Services
"Murray, who has a wider range than we sometimes realize, finds the human core of this FDR and presents it tenderly."
-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times
"Let others slobber over Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. In this year of looking over our shoulders at past leaders with more heroic leadership qualities than the ones we've been getting lately, I'll stick with Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt."
-- Rex Reed, New York Observer
Hyde Park on Hudson
Starring Bill Murray and Laura Linney
2 1/2 stars out of five