Hyde Park on Hudson is a film that shoots for Oscar glory and falls far short. It’s an admirable attempt at making something special, but that attempt, sadly, results in a failure. But just because something isn’t worthy of an Oscar doesn’t make it bad. Hyde Park on Hudson doesn’t do much wrong; the problem is that it doesn’t do much at all. It isn’t terrible by any means and it keeps you interested until the end, but for a movie that takes place at the back end of the Great Depression and during a tumultuous time when war seemed inevitable, it fails to resonate. It limits its focus so much that the world around these characters seems to disappear. The effect of the Depression and the anxiety from the impending war are all but forgotten, mentioned merely in passing rather than properly explored. It’s definitely worth seeing, but only with the reservation that its ambition is confined to faux-Oscar aspirations.
The film begins with narration from Margaret (Laura Linney), the fifth or sixth cousin (depending on how you count) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray). One night, she is called to visit the President and they begin to have an affair. She sticks with him through all of his trials and tribulations, including the visitation of King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), who hope to gain American support against the approaching Nazi evil.
The fact that Hyde Park on Hudson’s plot synopsis can be described in such a short space is evidence of its limited intentions. The film is less interested in exploring the anxiety and fear of what a war could bring and instead spends almost all of its time with Roosevelt and his crew at Roosevelt’s country estate in New York. The drama never rises above trivial relationship matters, as if they’re more important than the country as a whole. The biggest missed opportunity, though, comes from the King and Queen. Despite expressing their concern over the looming threat their country will soon face, their scenes consist mostly of discussions over the food they will be served at the upcoming picnic in their honor. The idea of hot dogs (perhaps because they’re unfamiliar with the concept) seems grotesque to them and they spend more time contemplating over whether or not they’re going to eat them than how they’re going to convince America to come to their aid. All these conversations throughout the entire movie culminate into little more than a supposedly humorous bit. “Oh, look at the prim and proper Englishman eating a hot dog!” This late scene is meant to act as a bridge between the shared humanity of America and the United Kingdom, but it comes off as little more than an inconsequential farce.
Despite a desire to see more come of these scenes, it would be disingenuous to say they weren’t at all interesting. They still have their charms and they offer some of the biggest laughs in the entire movie. In fact, every scene, even away from the bickers between the King and Queen, is like this. You want more, but you’re happy anyway. This is due to the excellent cast giving terrific performances. The performers take a long, meandering movie full of dialogue heavy scenes and they manage to make it engrossing. While those Best Picture Oscars will remain elusively out of their grasp, don’t be surprised when it picks up some acting nods. Bill Murray, in particular, is terrific and does everything he can to bring President Roosevelt back to life. It could be argued that a nomination given to him would be more because of his storied career rather than because of this single performance’s greatness, but he nonetheless deserves it. He’s come a long way from the goofy comic so many grew up with. He’s a legitimate and incredibly talented actor that shines in what could be the toughest role of his career.
Hyde Park on Hudson is still, ultimately, a disappointment and it uses a bit too much camera trickery for such a straight forward drama (I’m not too sure that scene where everybody is standing outside chatting needed a frantic 360 degree rotation around them), but it still works. In a way, it plays like a good book, complete with descriptive narration that, for once, isn’t completely unnecessary. It adds feel, time and place to a movie that is severely lacking in all three and Laura Linney’s soft, sweet voice makes it even better, almost as if she’s soothing you off to sleep. It’s these positives that you’ll remember when walking out of Hyde Park on Hudson, which is precisely why it’s worth seeing.
Hyde Park on Hudson receives 3.5/5