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“Hyde Park on Hudson”: Bill Murray’s Lonely, Horny FDR

FDR is depicted as a blithe, womanizing creep who makes JFK and John Edwards look like bumbling frat boys.
 
 
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Amid all the heavyweight, full-length movies of this holiday season, full of epic battle scenes, meaningful monologues and moments of brooding contemplation,  “Hyde Park on Hudson”occupies a different niche. It’s a nostalgic historical drama involving the president of the United States, the king of England and a hot dog that’s free of philosophical heavy lifting, and it’s a story of extramarital love that’s barely naughty enough for grandma. It boasts a couple of delicate and understated performances that might make it into the Oscar race – Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Laura Linney as the distant cousin who becomes his lover – but are almost certain to be displaced in a year full of bigger names and more momentous roles.

I quite enjoyed “Hyde Park on Hudson” while I was watching it, but ultimately it feels like a minor picture  on purpose, as if it had been deliberately designed to be everybody’s second- or third-choice holiday film. If the whole family’s hopelessly divided about whether to catch  “The Hobbit,” “Django Unchained” or “Zero Dark Thirty” the day after Christmas, here’s your solution. This minor episode drawn (or possibly invented) from the life of America’s most controversial 20th-century president will be diverting to all and disturbing to almost none. And it’s short enough that after it’s over you can announce that the cold weather can go to heck and you want some darn ice cream.

When I say that “Hyde Park on Hudson” will trouble few viewers, what I mean is that director Roger Michell (of the quasi-classic rom-com  “Notting Hill” and the 2006  “Venus”) and screenwriter Richard Nelson work hard to make the story feel like a bittersweet romantic idyll that you don’t have to think about. It plays like a combination of  “My Week With Marilyn” and “The King’s Speech,” and is rather too obviously in thrall to those models. But beneath the film’s gentle tone, it depicts FDR as a blithe, womanizing creep who makes JFK and John Edwards look like bumbling frat boys – and depicts him surrounded by an ever-expanding posse of females who accepted his tomcatting as the natural order of things.

I’m not claiming this is unassailable historical truth (although it fits the evidence pretty well), and I would agree that it’s important to put things like this into context: Powerful men have behaved this way for millennia; Roosevelt’s alleged relationships involved consenting adults; sex and gender issues were very different in 1930s America than they are today, and it’s no good exporting our supposedly enlightened values into the past. But the real flaw in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which isn’t fatal but introduces a weird and troubling undertow, is that it allows all these issues to come up, ever so briefly, before briskly sweeping them under the rug and slamming the door.

Chronology is pretty vague in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” as is point of view, historical import and the sun-splashed cinematography of Lol Crawley, among other things. Our principal focus is on Daisy (Linney), an impoverished “fifth or sixth cousin” to the Roosevelt family who is summoned to the president’s eponymous rural estate in Dutchess County, N.Y., by his imperious mother (Elizabeth Wilson), to keep him company during a period of rest. I think that puts the beginning of the story around 1937, in Roosevelt’s second term, when the strains of office were beginning to take a toll on his frail physique. (No one with FDR’s litany of health problems could easily be elected president today, even setting aside the disability that was never openly discussed.) But the film strays from Daisy’s perspective whenever it’s convenient, showing us events she does not witness and couldn’t know much about, including private conversations between Roosevelt and King George VI, aka Bertie the famous stutterer (the Colin Firth role from “The King’s Speech,” played here by the modestly agreeable Samuel West).

 
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