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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Hyde Park on Hudson' good but could have been better

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FILE - This undated publicity film image released by Focus Features shows, from left, Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt, Laura Linney as Daisy, and Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt in a scene from "Hyde Park on Hudson." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Nicola Dove, File)

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

(R)

2 and 1/2 stars out of 4

Like the recent "Lincoln," "Hyde Park on Hudson" is a movie about a beloved U.S. president that covers only a microcosm of his life and could rightfully be regarded as vague with its contents and in the end we're all the better for it. This isn't a bad movie; it looks great, makes some wry observations regarding human nature and international politics and features a phenomenal lead performance. Beyond that ... it's kind of suspect.

In the film's final scene, an aide lifts President Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray) out of his wheelchair and places him in the backseat of a waiting limousine while a gaggle of photographers wait patiently. When comfortably situated and feeling camera ready, FDR gives the high sign and a flurry of flashbulbs go off as the car drives away. The scene illustrates the unspoken understanding between the White House and the press that the chief executive (in this case, a wheelchair-bound polio victim) would only be seen in the most favorable light.

Although FDR didn't regard his physical state as a handicap or impediment, he keenly recognized the possible perception of both the American public and other world leaders. A man shown sitting in a wheelchair -- however unfair it may be -- would be considered a sign of weakness. If screenwriter and Richard Nelson and director Roger Michell had made this the principal focus of the movie, it could have resulted in a masterpiece. Instead it caps off a film that does the exact opposite; showing FDR as an egomaniac and serial philanderer. So much for that "favorable light" thing.

The movie opens in 1939, long after the marriage between FDR and wife (also his second cousin) Eleanor (Olivia Williams) had become sexless and one of mere political convenience. Because of her considerable time spent with various philanthropic endeavors and her enormous self-contained popularity, the First Lady took FDR's dalliances as a matter of course and -- with what some might call passive/aggressive behavior -- quietly overlooked his straying.

Like a teen boy with a muscle car, FDR used his stamp collection as a quasi-aphrodisiac to lure (or soften) his would-be paramours. His latest conquest Daisy (Laura Linney) was his sixth-cousin living close to poverty and not far from the presidential retreat in Hyde Park, New York. A man with irresistible, bottomless charm, FDR realized his position as the leader of the free world was something a backwoods type like Daisy would find impossible to resist and she succumbed with nary of word of protest or understanding.

Although she didn't know it at the time, Daisy was just one of a handful of women FDR kept at close arm's length to provide him with both physical favors and ego stroking -- all while under the same roof as his wife and his mother. The movie is none too shy in its suggestion that FDR was mollycoddled as a child and required constant female attention for his entire life.

Far less than it should, the relationship main story is kept on the close sidelines and shares the spotlight with a royal visit from King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman). This was the first stateside trip of a British Monarch to the U.S. and it was made solely for getting FDR to back England in World War II. An astute student of history and admirer of Lincoln, FDR knew he had the upper hand and although he never threw his weight around, he made it clear to George that any U.S. involvement would be strictly on his terms.

One might not initially think Murray to be the ideal candidate to play such an iconic figure such as FDR but it doesn't take long before any doubts dissipate. Woefully underrated as a dramatic actor, Murray constantly bounces back and forth between the light and the serious without getting too broad or turning it into farce. In a year littered with strong leading male performances (in mostly better films), Murray's is likely to be overlooked, as have most of his other past Oscar-caliber performances. (Focus Features)