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Hide Your Eyes from Hyde Park on Hudson

  • Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2012 12 Dec
  • COMMENTS
Hide Your Eyes from <i>Hyde Park on Hudson</i>

DVD Release Date: April 9, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: December 7, 2012 in select theaters; wider through December
Rating: R (for mild language and brief sexuality)
Genre: Period Comedy-Drama
Run Time: 92 min
Director: Roger Michell
Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West , Olivia Williams, Olivia Colman

Editor's Note: This review contains frank discussion of subject matter that is sexual in nature. Parents please be advised.

There are few (if any) significant portrayals of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so a movie that attempts one is instantly noteworthy. Then add to that such an unexpected FDR casting choice as the comically enigmatic Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom) and you have a concept that’s downright inspired.

Unfortunately, casting is where the inspiration ends. Hyde Park on Hudson, which is set during a fateful pre-WWII weekend at Roosevelt’s upstate New York retreat, isn’t just unremarkable. It’s a gross miscalcuation on every level.

Playing against the backdrop of FDR’s 1939 meeting with England’s King George VI, Hyde Park on Hudson presents itself as revealing the "special relationship" (read: love affair) between the President and his very distant cousin Daisy, a secret recently uncovered through her letters from the time. Except... it just wasn’t that special.

Come to find out, according to this film’s telling, FDR had a veritable harem of which Daisy was only a member. What’s perplexing about this whole account is how Roosevelt’s womanizing is romanticized, played through such a blithe – even forgiving – filter of nostalgic warmth. It's as baffling as it is offensive.

Daisy (Laura Linney, Breach) ends up being the default family visitor to a lonely Franklin – due solely to her geographic proximity – just prior to the King’s arrival. She's shy, he's witty, and before you know it they’re on a jaunty countryside drive that ends with Daisy, er, servicing the President’s masturbatory needs.

The moment itself is awkward, to be sure, but even more shocking is Daisy’s recollection that it was the moment they instantly became "very good friends." Their relationship blossoms only through similarly inexplicable and rather shallow connections and hook-ups. That the film actually expects us to buy there was something meaningful between the two is intellectually and emotionally insulting, not to mention debasing.

The FDR seen here is the worst kind of cad and President, one that would prefer to vacate full-time if not for those pesky Presidential responsibilities that keep getting in the way of his social and sexual proclivities. This is a Democrat Hero as Dirty Old Man: entitled, lazy, a lush, and a presumptive pervert. But he does it all with such a delightfully mischevous glint in his eye that who can hate him, right? It feels more like an apologist's take on Bill Clinton, not FDR (and maybe that’s the point? An implied pass for all sexually-promiscious Liberal Icons?).

The event through which Hyde Park chooses to lionize FDR's political acumen – his diplomacy with King George VI – is superficial as well. The stakes are set very high for this summit, despite the fact that George VI is not Churchill and thus whatever transpires – no matter how deftly or successfully – is largely ceremonial. Moreover, it all wraps up with a mere gesture of "Yes, if Germany attacks, we may consider helping you" that amounts to nothing more than a tactful hill of beans.

It certainly doesn’t help matters that such a recent portrayal of King George VI – Best Picture and Actor winner The King’s Speech – looms large over this production. Seeing the stuttering King (nicknamed “Bertie”) overcome his neurosis and fears through FDR’s amiable cajoling seems rather trite in light of the more tortured journey of healing we saw Lionel Logue lead Bertie through in 2010’s beloved crowd-pleaser.

The cast has absolutley no chemistry. Linney’s Daisy, despite recalling these times with such fond affinity, is rather joyless. One wonders what Franklin even saw in her other than convenience and ease of manipulation. Her one outburst of conviction – when she calls out Franklin on his promiscuity – is all-too-quickly sublimated as she ultimately joins his other paramours as a willful enabler.

For his part as FDR, Murray is also one-note. The fact that he’s having fun is trumped by the role’s inherent misogyny. Samuel West is fine as Bertie but, again, pales to Colin Firth’s take by inevitable comparison. As Eleanor Roosevelt, Olivia Williams (Hanna) is hampered by a script and direction that reduces the famously formidable First Lady to being casually practical, even passive.

Never have so many pretentious airs been put on in the service of something so airheaded. Half of Hyde Park on Hudson is about the poetic whimsy of non-committal sex. The other half is a simplistic reduction of the first-ever meeting between a U.S. President and an English Monarch (164 years after the American Revolution). In one half the President's a creep, in the other he doesn't lead so much as schmooze and liquor up. That so much of the meeting's success would hinge on the eating of a hot dog further deflates its legitimacy.

No President or American icon, regardless of how sacred, should solely be lionized – especially where hypocrises and moral failings exist. Those failings are worth exploring and putting into a broader context of history, but Hyde Park on Hudson attempts to do so via all the wrong choices – narrative, thematic, and otherwise.

In the end we’re not left with a better understanding of our longest-serving President, only a very distasteful one. I may now know a little bit more about what FDR did privately, but I feel as if I understand him less.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Fairly frequent cigarette smoking. Several instances of drinking alcohol, including mixed drinks.
  • Language/Profanity: Three uses of the D-word. One SOB.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Masturbation strongly implied (a woman’s hand goes inside a man’s trousers, hand movement briefly seen, expressions on both people’s faces, arm motions). Multiple adulterous relationships, all of which are ultimately condoned or at least sympathized with. Some kissing and embracing. A couple of discreet innuendos.

Publication date: December 7, 2012