Who knew FDR was such a randy old man? Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson is not, as may seem at first blush, a screwball ditty in which England’s king and queen set foot in the States for the first time with the weight of a war on their shoulders. Culture clash does fuel some of the film’s gags—the queen feels certain that the hot dogs served are meant as a slight—but the scenario concerns itself far more with Roosevelt’s personal affairs than with his diplomatic ones.
Narrating in a voiceover that’s almost as sentimental as the score, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney) describes in retrospect the summer Momma Roosevelt summoned her forth like a sacrificial lamb when Franklin (Bill Murray) needed a special friend. Plucked out of a bullpen of cousins, Daisy is enamored with the president’s worldliness, a quality apparently not undermined by the fact that he still lives with his mother. A stamp collection and an awkwardly staged hand job later, and Daisy is a mistress.
Many of the film’s aspects feel selected from a made-for-Oscar catalogue: this is a biopic cut from the My Week With Marilyn cloth—inoffensive, lightweight, and arguably with even less psychological turmoil. The screenplay, written by Richard Nelson, paints FDR as a well-dressed manchild doted on by a collective of women. Alarmingly, Bill Murray does not play Bill Murray. He attempts to convey Roosevelt’s characteristic sincerity, but Murray’s casting has conflicting connotations, and the specter of deadpan haunts the performance.
The tonal confusion within the character is in some ways metonymic for how the film’s underlying theme is at odds with superficial appearances. After all, the film is presented as a charming romp in the Dutchess County sun but is ultimately about a woman learning that supposedly great men must be shared. Hyde Park is full of competent women supporting their important men—even Eleanor Roosevelt is somehow re-categorized through her context as a Lady for Franklin.
Between this and Lincoln, the holiday season now has two films regarding our most revered presidents at different, almost complementary stations. In Lincoln, our chief executive is trying to get America out of a war; in Hyde Park, he’s readying the country to enter one. Maybe it’s for this reason that the new film feels more like a preamble, and therefore lacking the necessary stakes. The film dots its I’s and crosses its T’s—not in preparation for a battle, but for Oscar season.