Hyde Park on Hudson masquerades as a presidential biopic, but really it’s just a film about a naive spinster. Bored of caring for her aging mother, Daisy (Laura Linney) is thrilled and terrified by the prospect of visiting the president, a fifth cousin—of which she continually reminds us—when his mother invites her to call on him at their estate, Hyde Park. Soon after, however, the two become romantically entangled, and Daisy is pulled into a life she isn’t sure she can manage.
It’s common knowledge now that FDR had polio, but rarely do we see it depicted as unflinchingly as we do in Hyde Park on Hudson. We expect to see him sitting in a wheelchair or clutching a podium to stand during an important speech (as in Warm Springs), but Hyde Park goes further. With countless shots of the president being carried in the arms of the secret service and wincing at the smallest movements of everyday life, we see FDR’s weakness much more than his strength.
This, in part, is because the film focuses much more on personal relationships than it does on politics. Nearly all of the events revolve around King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), visiting Hyde Park to discuss the United States joining in the war effort against Hitler, under the guise of a social visit. However, most of the political talk is over the implications of the king and queen eating hot dogs at an American picnic.
Despite his illness, FDR can charm anyone, from women to kings. Bill Murray, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance (Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical), charms the audience as well. He uses his polio to connect to George about his speech impediment, he knows what to say to placate nervous Daisy and he can always play off a serious moment with a witty joke. However, the president is depicted as arrogant and manipulative, while remaining physically and emotionally dependent on those close to him. When confronted by his mother about alcohol consumption in their normally-dry home, Murray yells, “I am the President!” in a manner reminiscent of Frank Langella’s Nixon, further demonstrating the President’s instability. In capturing the multi-faceted and troubled FDR, Murray gives by far the best performance in Hyde Park.
In the film, FDR is an avid stamp collector, but he is a collector of women as well. His brash wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) lives apart from him, “in a house with other women.” At first unbeknownst to his doting mistress Daisy, the president is also seeing his secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), who later instructs Daisy in her “duty” to share FDR. In director Roger Michell’s pre-war America, all important men need more than one woman, and those women need just accept that as their place.
Aside from Murray’s performance, Hyde Park is relatively unremarkable. Most of the film is narrated by Daisy, but her character is so flat and dull that the best scenes are all those in which she isn’t present. When she is in a scene, she’s the butt of every joke, and the sad thing is that she thinks she’s powerful. You keep hoping for Daisy to become more than a saltine cracker that gets passively tossed around and stepped on by every other character. You keep hoping for her to grow a pair. But she doesn’t.