Awkward isn’t always a bad thing. Ben Stiller has made a career out of being nebbishly so. Zooey Deschanel is America’s Awkward Sweetheart. And Hyde Park on Hudson, the new film about a decidedly awkward weekend between the Roosevelts and the Royals, seems to be aiming for the same lovable territory that Ms. New Girl has struck gold with. But despite Bill Murray’s best performance since Lost in Translation, this examination of special relationships struggles to find a consistent tone. The biggest casualty of that struggle? A story rich with history and intrigue, relegated to arguments about mustard and the moon.
Make no mistake, Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t trying to be Lincoln. After all, when Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg are teaming up for a presidential prestige picture, your film should probably try to do something different. And credit goes to screenwriter Richard Nelson for avoiding some of the didacticism that was Lincoln’s only flaw by giving FDR an aversion to political wrangling. But like Lincoln, this is not a traditional biopic, either. Rather, it is an examination of a time that happened to be very important in the lives of both Americans and their beloved leader. We find that leader at his home away from Washington, D.C., trying to run the country with seemingly minimal effort, and courting a mistress who is apparently a distant cousin. If this weren’t off-putting to begin with, further discomfort ensues when their casual romance begins in earnest with what can only be described as tugging on something that definitely isn’t heartstrings. Despite a chemistry that works about as well as FDR’s legs, things get going anyway, and we’re along for the bumpy ride.
Murray’s turn as Roosevelt is one of the only pleasant aspects of an otherwise bumpy ride. He exudes warmth and gravitas while remaining incorrigibly impish. He seems to delight in getting away with crimes great and small under the Draconian watch of both his mother and wife Eleanor. The esteemed Mrs. Roosevelt is presented here as an annoying necessity, foisting her political agendas on everyone just to feel important. It probably doesn’t help that her powerful, unassailable husband doesn’t bother to hide his dalliances, but the whole thing feels vaguely misogynistic—the women in this film are either domineering shrews or mistresses grateful for scraps from a table to which they’re never invited. Speaking of mistresses, Laura Linney is the other woman in question here, the quiet distraction giving us her point of view about the way that weekend transpired. She is typically solid as Daisy, and the truth in her story is supposed to lend pathos to an otherwise political tale. Occasionally, it does. But the storytelling is so uneven that our interests are never rooted. Are we supposed to cheer for the burgeoning, “mildly incestual extramarital affair” between Daisy and Franklin? Or is it more important to focus on King George and Queen Elizabeth coming to the American president for help in Europe’s darkest hour? Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t, and as a result, neither are we.
There are moments of excellence in a film that was once thought to be an Oscar contender. Lol Crawley’s brush stroke as a cinematographer is sumptuous. Every frame is a muted pastel paean to a simpler, more beautiful time. As the king and queen of England, Samuel West and Olivia Colman deserve a film of their own (if Colin Firth hadn’t already spearheaded that story just a few years earlier). But, much like FDR, no matter how charming this film is, it is still hobbled. His grace got him out of quite a few awkward situations. Hyde Park on Hudson wasn’t so lucky.
Director: Roger Michell
Writer: Richard Nelson
Starring: Bill Murray, Laura Linney
Release Date: Dec. 7, 2012