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FDR biopic 'Hyde Park' lacks direction, continuity

Focus

By Jacob Axelrad, Assistant Arts Editor
Published January 23, 2013

Watching “Hyde Park on Hudson” is a bit like watching actors who’ve been told to play important historical figures in an important period in history and yet have been given nothing to go on save for how they might imagine these real-life characters to have behaved and talked. In short, we’re given very little in the way of structure, something to invest us in these people’s lives.

The story feels more suited for cocktail party candor. “Did you know that when the King and Queen of England visited the president in 1939 to ask for America’s aid in World War II, FDR was sleeping with his secretary and his distant cousin?” Such is the story’s overall thrust, which ultimately doesn’t delve much deeper than the pages of FDR’s stamp collection, a hobby he uses as an excuse for “alone time” during moments of stress.

There are, however, lovely images of expansive green pastures and meadows, the kinds you might see in a travel brochure for upstate New York, the film’s setting. There’s also a surprising moment of depth between Franklin Roosevelt (an always charming Bill Murray, “Zombieland”) and King George VI, nicknamed “Bertie” (Samuel West, “Van Helsing”), the stuttering monarch portrayed by Colin Firth in 2010’s “The King’s Speech.” Murray, clearly relishing the opportunity to show FDR’s more manipulative nature, presents himself as the proud father Bertie has always wanted, while the young king confesses his terror about failing his country in this time of great need and, perhaps more pointedly, failing his wife.

Combining political savvy with genuine warmth, FDR gracefully takes Bertie under his wing, while revealing a weakness of his own: his reliance on the strong women he surrounds himself with. And yet, the facts of the film would prove otherwise, as the women in question — his mother (Elizabeth Wilson, “The Graduate”), his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams, “The Ghost Writer”), his secretary and mistress Missy (Elizabeth Marvel, “Lincoln”) and, the newest arrival, his sixth-cousin Daisy (Laura Linney, “John Adams”) — do little more than provide the occasional quip when the president’s feeling playful, dote on him and essentially act as moral support.

The story partially belongs to Daisy, the star-struck relative who lives with her aunt near the president’s Hyde Park residence, and whose tedious voice-over narration hammers home her naïveté followed by flashes of dull revelation. “I realized then that we had become very good friends,” Daisy notes after she and the president have consummated their relationship in his car amid a field of flowers. But Daisy’s storyline, as is the case with the other meandering plot points, bobs and floats along aimlessly like the hairs on FDR’s head as he chuckles at Bertie’s hesitation to eat a hot dog. In other words, it doesn’t go much of anywhere. Even Daisy’s discovery and acceptance of FDR’s additional extramarital affairs (she is not, as the film belabors, the president’s only lover) is handled with the flippancy of casual conversation, compelling the dreaded question: Why should we even care?

At times, “Hyde Park” wants to tell the delicate love story of a shy, timid woman and the powerful man who allowed her to see his more vulnerable side. Other times, it tries to insert bits of diplomatic strife as these world leaders negotiate a strategic alliance for the war they will inevitably be forced to fight. But the glue connecting these pieces (some of which are admittedly quite funny, filled with the occasional jab at British elegance contrasted with American vulgarity) consists of little more than slow-moving shots of FDR, wheelchair-bound, imploring Daisy to have a cup of tea with him or his mother scolding him for drinking brandy. It’s a haphazard, directionless attempt at continuity, which falls short.

Although it’s possible director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) set out to paint a portrait of the intricacies and subtleties of the FDR you don’t read about in history books, complete with the scheming and conning for both personal and tactical gain, what we’re left with in large part are characters puttering about their business, as though rehearsing their parts for an interesting movie they have yet to make. Unfortunately, it’s a movie we never get to see.


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