Review originally published September 10, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
"Hyde Park on Hudson" is about thirty minutes of a good movie. At the outset, it's easy to think director Roger Michell and writer Richard Nelson have stumbled upon something exceptional with a stalwart cast and a plot hook hinging on a meeting between FDR (played with aplomb by Bill Murray) and the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) at FDR's mother's New York estate. These were the times that tried a man's soul, FDR included, though his penchant for relationships outside of his marriage to Eleanor (Olivia Williams) certainly set him up as an interesting study on moral authority. Nevertheless, he's portrayed as kind and clever throughout, his dalliances transpiring with women of substance who stood proudly beside him.
Good concept firmly in place, "Hyde Park on Hudson" spends the next hour making you reconsider its merit. A movie in desperate search of a point, "Hyde Park on Hudson" wants you to believe it's kinda sorta about civilized adult relationships and the international tumult of war... before finally deciding it's about nothing at all. The film then falls into a puddle and flails around haplessly, a stupefied gaze appearing on its eyes. Sad, really.
What goes terribly wrong is the reliance on the character of Daisy, FDR's distant cousin and mistress, to narrate the story. It's not that Laura Linney isn't up to the task — she's a great actor — it's more that the material simply isn't there to work with. If you're telling a story about a momentous meeting of historical titans, it feels somewhat off to focus on the odd sex act here and there. England seemed to be in the process of begging for America's support against Germany, an act of global consequence, but this is rudely shoved to the background to ponder how FDR's fifth cousin felt about not being invited to a dinner party. You could make the case that these affairs humanize the era, but we've seen cheating in cinema before; it is a universal experience. The King and Queen talking with the President is not an everyday occurrence, and it practically cries out to be the focus of the narrative arc.
It feels like "Hyde Park on Hudson" intrinsically knows its shortcomings, only it can't quite fix them, preferring to shoot for the gossipy sins of the flesh instead. Is the prospect of how certain mistresses got along with each other historically relevant? No, not really, but this is the prominent feature of "Hyde Park on Hudson." There's also a chase scene which can only be described as disastrous. Why it was included can't be surmised using good judgment; one can only imagine that they needed an action beat in this sleepy historical drama. Really, it would have been a far superior choice to focus on Eleanor Roosevelt's carpentry skills, for at least there was a flash of inspiration there.
Moments of levity can be found in "Hyde Park on Hudson," including a scene where FDR churlishly shouts, "I'm the President!" when he's not getting his way. There's also the particular way the Monarchy pronounces the words "hot dog," only with a huge space between the two words for optimal mirth. Sadly, a few giggles maketh a movie not, and "Hyde Park" can't survive its wobbly foundation. No siree, when the universe is kind enough to give you a once-in-a-lifetime meeting between national icons, you needn't head off to the bedroom to see if there's anything more interesting happening.