On paper, Notting Hill director Roger Michell’s lightweight historical drama has all of the ingredients to notch up multiple awards and become the kind of cross-Atlantic box-office success to file alongside Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech, a film with which it shares a major character and little else.
Unfortunately Hyde Park on Hudson strains to transcend the feel of a Sunday night TV drama; the comedy is trite, the narrative structure all over the place, and the performances uneven.
Centred on a the build up to a historical weekend in 1939, this is the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and the comings-and-goings of his frequent stays in the beautiful locales of upstate New York. It’s narrated by his distant cousin, Margaret Stuckley (Laura Linney), and focuses upon his relationship with her, as well as the other women in his life – his mother, secretary, and his estranged wife (Olivia Williams). The importance of the weekend is because it’s a Royal visit, one with implications on the future of both nations, as King George IV (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), seek assurances on America’s stance on the forthcoming war.
Michell’s film is like a postcard, beautiful to look at, with a few key moments pithily condensed into small sequences. As a result the film seems to start with a reel missing, with the story getting to a point in FDR and Stuckley’s relationship too quickly that it never feels real, or carries any weight, and this handicaps the entire movie. Yes, Linney adds a voiceover of convenience, an endless stream of exposition to join the dots, but because we know very little about her and the nature of her relationship with him (beyond the odd montage), means the film has very little focus. It would have worked better had they jettisoned the unbelievably hackneyed “how I longed for him” narration and spent an extra 10 minutes fleshing out the characters.
Despite the frothiness of it all, the actors still make a decent fist of it. Bill Murray has quietly evolved into a brilliant actor. His one-on-one moments with Samuel West’s equally impressive King George are the movie’s strongest moments, and despite FDR coming across as something of a gentle misogynist, Murray still makes him quite affable. Both of the Olivias impress: Colman imbues Elizabeth with a schizophrenic balance of insecurity and fierce determinism when her dignity is questioned, and Williams is a breath of fresh air amidst the stuffiness. It’s Linney who suffers the most as our window into the story. She seems to be little more than a storytelling device to propel the repetitive social meets and comedic set-pieces, when her inner turmoil should have been the strength of the story.
There is an air of pre-emptive achievement about Hyde Park on Hudson, that it can survive on Bill Murray’s fantastic performance and the subject matter alone. There is even a huge over-the-top “golden age of Hollywood” orchestral score that emphasises the romantic union between FDR and Stuckley, but it appears so early in proceedings that it feels undeserved and hugely out of place. It’s indicative of a film that is patchy, frustrating, and thoroughly unremarkable.