The best part of Hyde Park on Hudson, the teatime-with-FDR costume dramedy from Notting Hill director Roger Michell, is a long shot of a car in an upstate New York field. The camera is placed to the immediate right of a tree, and we gaze from a discreet distance at our 32nd President, slumped in the driver’s seat while his body softly bobs up and down. And no, he’s not laughing at a joke his female companion, located in the passenger seat, has just said.
There’s a happy ending involved, though.
Salacious subject matter continues to be glossed over, affectionately sugarcoated beneath a lacquer of good taste. It as if the entire movie has seen fit to cover its hand to hide an impish smirk. To which I counter, where’s the fun in that? Back in 1995, when I’d just arrived in Miami and a trip to AMC Cocowalk turned into a frequent ritual, Michell rocked my world with his stripped-down take on Persuasion. Enough of these fancy sets and lush production values, he appeared to declare. Regret, repressed longings, blatant power plays; that’s the meat and potatoes of Jane Austen’s prose, so why dilute it with frilly window dressing?
Fast forward 17 years, and we find the gifted English filmmaker indulging in the sort of refined trappings against which he’d once rebelled. Hyde Park on Hudson is a handsomely mounted bit of historical revisionism. It’s full of pretty daytime landscapes and atmospheric moonlit vistas. The interiors are shot with a keen eye for period detail that extends to the smallest piece of furniture, an Architectural Digest centerfold come alive with a stiff sense of decorum. All that’s missing is a shred of insight about the people occupying these obsessively manicured spaces. You know you’re in trouble when the background upstages the characters.
The story, told mostly from the point of view of FDR’s fifth cousin, the blandly obedient Daisy Stuckley (a dazed Laura Linney), gets underway when she receives a phone call from FDR’s domineering mother. It seems the Prez, who often stays at his mom’s place in the titular Long Island village, is stressed out about work, and to top it all off, his sinuses are acting up. Wouldn’t it be just darling if an esteemed relative paid him a visit to keep him company? Linney’s toxic voiceover narration underscores every action as if we were in grade school.
Hyde Park on Hudson‘s early scenes bristle with promise, a potential meeting of minds that will shed an intimate light on what makes Roosevelt tick. It’s no accident that our first glimpses of the Commander-in-Chief (a pleasingly understated Bill Murray), sitting behind the desk in his study, are blurry peeks at the corners of the frame. The problem is, FDR never snaps into focus after Michell’s camera stares at him directly, not even after the movie gets to its centerpiece: a royal visit from overseas by none other than King George VI (Howards End‘s Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). The film’s previews make it seem as if this encounter between world leaders on the eve of World War II, and not FDR’s extramarital affair(s), is the film’s main concern. After all, the Anglophiles who flocked to see The King’s Speech won’t mind being lured to the theater under false pretenses, will they?
What is Michell trying to say about Roosevelt, anyway? That he was an incorrigible horndog? Fine, but what are some of the barely alluded to motivations behind his courtly advances? Why do I still feel like I still know next to nothing about the man? He remains frustratingly out of reach. There’s nothing wrong with making an entire feature out of a historical footnote that explores these revered figures from a lighthearted perspective. But Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson (Ethan Frome) have delivered us blanks, one-dimensional bit players in a hoity-toity snooze with an acute case of Downton Abbey envy.
Hyde Park on Hudson begins courting its target audience when it opens this Friday at Boca Raton and West Palm Beach theaters. Miami tea-and-crumpets junkies will have to wait until January 4th to be sorely disappointed.