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HYDE PARK ON THE HUDSON – The Review

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Abraham Lincoln’s not the only former president to get a little cinema love this year. HYDE PARK ON THE HUDSON gives us another look at the man who spent the most time in the oval office: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like Abe, FDR served during one of the country’s most difficult periods. With the former it was the Civil War, while the latter dealt with the Great Depression and the second World War. And both men inspired extreme passion from their countrymen, either admiration or condemnation. Oddly both films concentrate on a single incident instead of the standard “rags to riches” movie bio. LINCOLN centers on his efforts to get Congress to ratify the 14th Amendment in 1865. HYDE concerns the visit by the British royal couple to the upstate New York home of FDR’s mother in 1939. While Spielberg stays out of the boudoir for the most part, director Roger Michell delves fully into the extra marital activities of our 32nd president by telling the story not through his eyes, but through one of his paramours.

That woman is distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley (Laura Linney) who takes care of her mother in a modest home not far from the Roosevelt estate Springwood. One day, out of the blue, she’s summoned there. The president (Bill Murray) needs a distraction from his job stress during this visit to his mother’s home. The two soon bond over family talk and his stamp collection. The visits become more frequent and the shy, quiet Daisy becomes a fixture there. Eventually she and Franklin share a more intimate relationship. Tensions increase around the estate in anticipation of a visit by King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). George AKA Bertie has come to plead for the US aid his country against the German military. Mother Roosevelt (Elizabeth Wilson) is in a nervous tizzy preparing for their arrival while Franklin’s wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) returns in order to keep up appearances. The royals are quite perplexed by the American customs. During all the festivities, the affair between FDR and Daisy reaches a crossroads.

Michell has really assembled an all-star cast for the main American characters, but the real stand outs are the “fish out of water” Brits. With THE KING’S SPEECH still fresh in most movie goers’ memories these fine actors may be a bit overlooked. West makes a great somewhat stiff, befuddled Bertie as he tries to ascertain the hidden meanings of these New Yorkers. Colman is a great foil as she tries to inspire her hubby to show no weaknesses to their hosts. They’re not Firth and Bonham-Carter, but they’re delightful in their many conspiratorial scenes. Murray just snagged a Golden Globe nom, but he doesn’t bring anything new to FDR that actors like Ralph Bellamy and Edward Herrman haven’t already explored. It’s a far cry from the typical snarky Murray role, but his upper-crust accent and energetic lilt is more of an impression. Williams is toned down perhaps too much as the First Lady. She’s got the New England inflections and some prosthetic choppers, but doesn’t make an impact besides giving her hubby an icy stare. Unfortunately, the very gifted Linney has little to do with the under written Daisy. For most of the film she remains the passive wide-eyed innocent. In the latter part of the film we get little indication of her true feelings besides a confrontational fantasy sequence. Too often we just seeing her sitting, smoking, and staring off into the distance.

On the plus side of this work, the art direction is superb. The period fashions, gorgeous automobiles (particularly FDR’s specially equipped roadster), and plush furnishings are a marvel to behold. They’re shot with a golden. late Summer haze that captures those long-ago days and moonlit nights. On the negative side is the salacious nature of several scenes. A main source of the script was the recently discovered diaries and letters of Daisy, but is this the real story of these affairs? There have been great films made that try to humanize history’s icons, but this seems to drag down the legacy of a remarkable leader who helped the country recover after its darkest hours. The first intimacy between FDR and Daisy is truly seedy. It’s a scene of a powerful man using kindness to seduce a fragile delicate young woman. What’s perhaps even worse is the acceptance of such behavior by the film’s end, that this gifted man is beyond standard morality and decency. It seems that polio has not slowed his stamina in the least. At least Eleanor’s dalliances are just hinted at with a few lines of conversation. During the last moments, the President is pretty much excused of all sins by his paramours and even celebrated. Oh, and the smoking is way overdone. I know most folks lit up 75 years ago, but this started to get pretty nauseating (almost as much as the condoned adultery). HYDE PARK ON THE HUDSON is a well-produced story about the special relationship between the US and Great Britain that unfortunately is mired in a speculative sleazy scandal.

2 Out of 5

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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