Movie Review: Hyde Park On the Hudson (2012)


Sometimes, the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts. Instead, the “whole” may even subtract from that “sum”. This movie was such an experience for me when I finally watched it on video this weekend.

Bill Murray played a different note from his ever-expanding range — one that earned him a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination (oddly, in the musical or comedy genre). And, Laura Linney has been a long-time favorite of mine but, somehow, did n0t amaze with her acting chops here.

The story centered around a key event: the King and Queen of England visiting President Franklin D Roosevelt for a weekend, just before WWII broke out across Europe, with various scenes before and after.

Leading up to this event, there were several scenes between FDR and the various women in his life at the time: mother, wife, private secretary, cousin, and companion. These scenes depicted various moments of interaction to establish how all of them felt about / towards each other. I found these moments somehow overworked — each carried so much weight, which eventually made them fall somewhat flat. For example, the scene where Linney’s character, Daisy, first met Murray’s character, FDR, at Hyde Park in his large office. The shots were arranged beautifully — we saw perspectives from each character’s point of view (camera looking over one’s shoulders at the other) as the sparse dialogue went back and forth. While I loved the setup, the constant back and forth over, most of the time, just a single phrase or word uttered got a bit exhausting.

The Royal event itself was probably the best part of the movie. Samuel West and Olivia Colman as the British King and Queen — somewhat out of their element in the American milieu, but trying to make the best of it — were a delight to watch. Their paranoid domestic back-and-forth along each step of the visit about whether the Americans were slighting them or not was, well, endearing. And, I am so glad that West did not overdo the King’s stutter.

Eleanor Roosevelt, I think, got the short shrift in this entire thing. Details about how she arranged the entertainment for the picnic with the Royals notwithstanding, the characterization felt very two-dimensional. Yes, even with all the information thrown in about the other FDR mistress, Rutherford, the reporter, Lorena Hickok, Eleanor’s journalism, her activism for racism and civil rights, etc. So much was, again, crammed into a handful of scenes and flew by without allowing us to register them appropriately and see the character more fully.

Actually, this whole dynamic between the King-Queen-FDR-Eleanor should have been an entire movie all on its own.

In the end, the story circled back to Linney’s character, Daisy, and her acceptance of her place within FDR’s close circle. That she was dedicated to him till her very end (in 1991, at the amazing age of 99), is clear from everything that has been written about her. Yet, the movie did not give a clear impression of what might have led to that deep dedication and affection. Perhaps we are meant to sift through the rather deeply-buried subtext — if we can only get past the cognitive overload resulting from the over-weighted scenes. Was it the whole power-as-an-aphrodisiac thing or true love? Or, perhaps, it was just a way to deal with an otherwise lonely life? Even with Linney’s muted voice-over narration as her character, Daisy, talking directly to us over great stretches of the movie, did not shed any light on this matter.

It is a very interesting story about this enigmatic woman whose life changed entirely from being an unassuming spinster of modest means and the President’s distant cousin to becoming one of his closest companions, spending time at the White House, meeting very famous people and discussing sensitive political world matters of the day. But, this movie rushes through everything so that we do not get to stop and really understand the characters for their true selves. Sad waste of both story and acting talents, really.

The saving grace, I guess, is the beautiful cinematography by Lol Crawley. I had to look him up. You can see him discussing the movie here.

As I started out saying, the whole just was not greater than the sum of its individual amazing parts.

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