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Hyde Park on Hudson

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 4, 2013 at 1:48 a.m.


Bill Murray manages a reasonably plausible impersonation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the featherweight Hyde Park on Hudson.

— Hyde Park on Hudson is a curious movie that demonstrates things most of us already understand - Bill Murray is an actor of some range and versatility, adept at impersonation. And Laura Linney is fetching, even when she is supposed to read as “dowdy” to the audience.

When it’s not utterly baffling, the film can be as charmingly aimless as a springtime stroll in the park. (I actually think I caught a visual quote from Rushmore somewhere in there.) Near the end, it seems to make an argument against the close scrutiny of “heroes” even as it diminishes the “great man” - Franklin Delano Roosevelt - who resides at its center. I don’t trust it as history (though that doesn’t disqualify it as fun) and I’m not sure the air of deliberate slightness isn’t a peremptory strike against real criticism. It seems kind of silly to take something so slight seriously.

But then, I don’t want to dismiss the performances of Murray and Linney. They’re good, although their characters come off as insubstantial people. If director Roger Michel meant to humanize FDR, then perhaps he has succeeded - the FDR who emerges here is a little man of sordid appetites and petty peccadilloes. He comes across as your slightly-off uncle who imagines himself as a rake.

I know enough about the real Daisy Suckley (FDR’s fifth or sixth cousin, played here by Linney) to know that things didn’t really happen the way they do in the film.

Suckley was also apparently one of FDR’s several mistresses. After her death, letters were discovered that confirmed an intimate relationship between the two. But she was pals with her cuz for years before the fateful day (in the movie) in 1939 when she’s summoned to tea with the 32nd president at his upstate New York home. Their relationship was complicated and probably quasi-Victorian, probably more epistolary than physical (though I don’t doubt it was consummated). There’s a tawdry scene in this film that feels wrong - even if there’s a grain of historical truth in it.

A more promising avenue opens with the arrival of the King and Queen of England at Hyde Park, to mark the beginning of America’s “special relationship” with England. You might think the filmmakers intended some resonance among the complicated but deep affinities between the countries and the Roosevelt-Suckley affair. But if they did, it eluded me.

Instead the royal visit is played for laughs - as an occasion for Roosevelt to instruct the stuttering King Bertie (Samuel West) on the capacity of the masses for self-delusion.

(Allow me one more dig at the film’s history. In the movie, the king has come hat in hand to beg for American assistance in the inevitable war. I’ve always understood that Roosevelt insisted on the royal visit - the first ever by a British monarch to the United States - because he wanted to encourage public support for America entering the war. FDR knew we’d have to fight Hitler - he wanted Americans to regard the British as natural allies. I will now please to shut up. Thank you.)

All that said, you certainly could do worse than enjoy a fanciful little film about a gentle president, his supposedly homely lover and two twittish English people appalled by hot dogs. I just wish they’d gone ahead and changed the names.

Hyde Park on Hudson 82 Cast: Laura Linney, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Wilson, Elizabeth Marvel Director: Roger Michel Rating: R, for brief sexuality Running time: 94 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 34 on 01/04/2013

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