It may be difficult to get past seeing Hyde Park on Hudson as anything more than a cynical play at Oscar success, shadowing last year's The King's Speech with another tale of the stuttering King, this time set on Terra Americana.
I think this kneejerk reaction would be unfair - love it or hate it, Hyde Park on Hudson does manage to sink or swim on its own merits, and its contrasts with the other, perfectly acceptable work, are much more varied than simply an Americanization of this type of period film.
The story roughly follows the strange relationship between U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), his wife Eleanor, and his (distant?) cousin Margaret Stuckley. It seems, if this film is to believed, that FDR had a hankering for getting it on with ladies other than his wife, and we see him seduce, with charm and guile, those women around him.
Bill Murray's turn as FDR is quite extraordinary. Another actor surely would have come across as either lecherous or saintly, but Murray manages to pull off the complexity of the man's character with aplomb. This is the type of role that may well garner him his first Oscar win - the film may not be up to the standards of such plaudits, but it's still less egregious than Scent of a Woman, that abomination of a movie that saw Al Pacino finally nab his own naked sword man trophy. Faint praise, perhaps, but most of the other contenders (River Phoenix, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis) already have a trophy, and perhaps only Bradley Cooper could slip one away from the deserving Murray.
Laura Linney, in very spare makeup, plays an equally spare role in Stuckley. There's flashes of passion and anger, but generally it's a dry, laconic tale that focuses around her own complex relationships with the President (we're told by end cards that the story is based on an account written by Stuckley and discovered after her death).
Olivia Williams makes a go of it as a strident but capable Eleanor, and Samuel West and Olivia Colman round up the rest of the main ensemble, playing the King and the Queen mum in a very different way to their portrayal in Tom Hooper's film of last year.
If there's something to set the work apart, it's that the relationships seem somehow more real, less heightened, even if the stakes are higher. Sure, some may see FDR's treatment of Edward as patronizing and of Elizabeth as mildly Lady McBeth-like, but frankly I believed in this more than the Angelic portrayals we saw in The King's Speech. We see a droll and witty president who just wants a hand-job in his convertible (really, who does not?), and a King of England who's nervous to death about having to receive assistance to keep his nation from the brink of disaster.
Hyde Park on Hudson is beautifully shot, with some lovely pastoral vistas that serve as the set pieces for a number of the segments. Director Roger Michell, whose Notting Hill is perhaps his best-known previous work, tells the story with a competency that's adequate to the task.
While containing certain "shocking" moments of ribald interplay, at best Hyde Park on Hudson can be considered a decent, if forgettable period piece. As a showcase for a toothy Murray, I think it will find its audience, particularly for those still surprised that men in power can manipulate those around them for the benefit of their pleasure. For the more cynical, there's little here likely to be revelatory, but sitting back and enjoying the actors do their thing on a pleasant canvas may be enough to recommend checking out the film for yourself.
Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2012. Hyde Park on Hudson opens in limited theatrical in the U.S. on Friday, December 7.