Monday, January 28, 2013

Movie Monday: Hyde Park on Hudson

This week's Movie Monday is the historical drama Hyde Park on Hudson!

I generally don't review current films for Movie Monday, preferring to stick to more obscure (or, at the very least, vintage) fare. But ever since I first heard of this movie--my favorite actor playing my favorite President--it remained at the top of my "must see" list. And now that I have seen it, I felt like I should give the film it's due here.
Hyde Park on Hudson takes place over a very concentrated period of time in our nation's history--the week or so in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt, and the country, awaited a visit from the newly-crowned King and Queen of England, on the eve of another world war.

The film is told from the point of view of Daisy (Laura Linney), a shy, withdrawn distant cousin of the President's. Living in a small, beat-up house with her mother, her life is a universe away from that of Franklin's. So she is shocked when she receives a call from one of FDR's people that he wants to see her at his retreat, aka Hyde Park.

At first, Daisy is looked upon by the people surrounding FDR (his wife the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, his overbearing mother Sara, his "assistant" Missy LeHand) as an intruder. But the President wants her there, and he treats her with tender care, showing her his precious stamp collection among other thihgs. We soon learn, however, that Daisy has been brought there for more than just simple companionship--despite their familial connections, Daisy is expected to provide certain...physical comforts to the President, which she does obligingly.

Amid all this family drama is, of course, the impending visit by the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman). They have their own issues--utterly befuddled by American customs, not to mention a little thing like Germany threatening to gobble up all of Europe. They show up at Hyde Park, and are shocked at the informality that passes amid the "ruling class" in America (the First Lady doesn't live with President, for instance). The Queen mostly holes herself up in their room while the King, knowing what must be done, tries to make the best of it, embracing local customs like eating hot dogs.

I cannot fully explain how much I was looking forward to this movie. I am an unabashed fan of FDR, having read a number of books on the man, even going so far as to making him a recurring character in Ace Kilroy. Considering his titanic importance to U.S. history (he is the only President to serve more than two terms) I feel like he has generally been underserved by the movies; there really hasn't been a FDR movie since 1960's Sunrise at Campobello, and even that movie didn't focus at all on his life in office. So a movie all about FDR--played by Bill Murray, of all people--just seemed to aimed right at my wheelhouse.

So it's really disappointing for me to report that Hyde Park on Hudson is...well, a disappointment. A big one. Bill Murray is effective as FDR, pretty much disappearing into the role. He doesn't really imitate the man so much as offer an alternate version of him, one that perhaps no one but those closest around him got to see (I don't recall a single scene with him alone). But Murray isn't done any favors by the screenplay: a lot of time, FDR comes across as a loathsome creep, and while it's certainly possible he was like that some of the time, it felt sordid watching a whole movie focused on this aspect of the man. After all, this was a guy who served four terms as President, helped steer us out of the Great Depression, and helped win World War II for Pete's Sake, and what are we watching? FDR getting a handjob from his cousin. Yick.

Another problem with the movie is that, even though it's Daisy's story and she narrates from beginning to end, we barely get to understand her as a person. She seems so meek, so out of her depth, that it's hard to picture her surviving in the pressure cooker situation she was thrust into. Yet she, um, grasps--and goes along with--the whole giving-her-cousin-a-handsy bit with a nary a word spoken between them. Then, later, she's totally shocked to learn that FDR is sleeping around with other women! This leads to an almost ridiculous scene of Daisy running through the woods, chased by Missy LeHand. Olivia Williams (Murray's co-star in Rushmore) appears briefly as Eleanor, but she gets the short shrift along with her husband, in favor of more scenes with Daisy looking doe-eyed.

Additionally, the two characters we seem to get the know the best are the King and Queen of England. Considering these two historical figures got their own movie (The King's Speech) less than two years ago, it seemed like an odd decision to keep cutting away from FDR to give us more scenes with the visiting royalty, where they even cover the King's stuttering. Haven't we seen this story somewhere before?

By the end of the movie, we watch the press waiting for FDR to be carried into his car, like a helpless child. Then they are given the okay sign, and they start snapping pictures, complicit in the cover-up of the President's handicap. In the narration, Daisy longs for the Good Old Days, when we, as a people, could still keep secrets. This is immediately followed by a coda that explains that this whole story was discovered via a box of letters found after Daisy died at age 100. Ah yes, secrets sure are a nice thing--except when they make good fodder for a movie, then it's bombs away!

One final detail that bugged me while watching Hyde Park on the Hudson: as you might expect, there's lots of period music in the movie. Unfortunately, the three main songs are the same three tunes that you hear in every movie set in the pre-WWII era: "Moonlight Serenade" by Glenn Miller, and two Ink Spots songs: "I Don't Want to Set The World on Fire" and "If I Didn't Care." I know that there was a lot less entertainment for people to avail themselves of back then, but surely there were more than just those three songs in existence? It felt the whoever chose the music for the movie did an iTunes search for "1930s hits", picked the top three most downloaded songs, and then went on vacation.

I really hate being so negative about the movie, because as I said, I love FDR as a subject and I think Bill Murray acquits himself well as the 32nd President. The scenes with him and the King are the best in the film, and it's in these brief exchanges we get a sense of how charming and crafty FDR was--a hint at how he was so successful as President, and Murray pulls it all off. He rarely stars in movies anymore, so when THE Bill Murray chooses a lead role you figure it's because he saw something really special. Too bad that movie didn't get made.

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