|Courtesy of Film Four|
There are two very different films playing out in the course of the brisk 95 minutes of Hyde Park on Hudson. One is an engaging, interesting, highly comedic historical film that acts as an epilogue to the blisteringly good King's Speech. The other is a hasty, under developed, disengaging love story. Sadly, it is the latter, because of the sexual "intrigue" (used, I assure you, very loosely), that is used as the framing device. A film on one or the other topic would have sustained itself, I think, and despite their historical overlapping, either story could have remained completely divorced from the other and been the better for it.
There is much to appreciate in Hyde Park, but it can be, and often is, overshadowed by the plodding elements, the lack of organic development and the down right puzzling characterisation.
Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that also live with their mother.
As I mentioned in my review of Hitchcock, there are two ways to approach the playing of a historical figure, especially one whose image and mannerisms are well known to the public. The first, is to completely embrace it, to do the full Day-Lewis, as it were. Dig down into the character, summon up the best impression you've got, and have at it. The risk is having the impression be more distracting then the performance. The other approach is to say "screw it," and play it straight. To master the motivations and the purpose of the character, and let the performance grow out of that. The risk there being, especially if the actor is well known, that the lack of any visage won't all the suspension of disbelief to take hold, and you end up with a long, unsuccessful SNL bit.
Hyde Park is all over the map in this regard, but the focus was, and should be, on Bill Murray's minimalist depiction of FDR. It is the central performance of the film, and without it the rest, which barely holds itself together as it is, would fall apart. Happily, Murray yet again proves that in age his quality as a performer only increases. Like Steve Martin, or rather unlike others of his generation like Chevy Chase, the expectation is not for Murray to be funny. You accept him in the environment. His job isn't to cut it up, it's to play a man. And play him he does. The best examples of this are when he's being carried around by his valet. The long, awkward moments would be the best opportunity for Murray to throw out a line, to cut the tension. Instead, more appropriately, these scenes are kept largely silent, purposefully awkward, as every refuses to acknowledge what is obvious. Indeed, while he has many funny lines, Murray least of all is used to generate laughs.
The rest of the cast are well suited in their roles, but the roles expected of them are uneven. Laura Linney is given the weight of the film early on, and through an overbearing and pointless narration remains the audience surrogate throughout the film. Except when her character disappears or is made irrelevant by the plot, at which time the films gets on fine without her. She is alternatively childish, much more so then simply naive, or cunning and wilful. It is unclear how they meant to present her, or what they were meaning to say with her portrayal, unless it was simply that FDR required a simple girl amongst the host of strong, authoritative women he found himself amongst.
The stand outs, for me, were Simon West and Olivia Colman as the British Royals. West especially played perhaps a closer to life version of Bertie then (the inevitably compared) Colin Firth, but it could not be helped throughout moments of his performance that it bordered on parody, and was never wholly genuine. That undercurrent of mockery was unsettling, and never endeared the whole performance to me. Colman, known in the UK for her association with comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, but continues to strike out into dramatic roles, was a much less forgiving Queen then Helena Bonham Carter. There is a protracted bit where they discuss the reasoning behind anti-British cartoons being placed in one of their rooms. This seemed self-referential, as the British characters, and especially the Royals, are treated to the most comedic material.
Don't get me wrong, it is funny stuff, and makes up the bulk of the best of the film. But the rest of the film isn't presented in anywhere near the same lightness, so the whole thing comes off as a mockery. The British are the buffoons, even the most revered of them, and every time they are on scene it must be a fast paced comedy routine about how strange everything is, and how "Hot-Dogs" are weird and insulting and my aren't they good to laugh at. I felt the whole structure of their roles vaguely insulting, but I enjoyed it immensely because it was also the best written material in the script.
The story of the Royals, all but being forced to come hat in hand and on bended knee to beg the Americans for assistance should the war in Europe break out, is a fascinating story. And I can't help but wonder, if the film had been focused on that, with George and FDR given equal positions in the narrative building to the culminating scene that is the best in the existing film, of two men both afflicted in some way, meeting each other finally as men rather then titles and reputations, it would have been a superior picture. Instead, on either side of the tale, we get this story of how FDR had an affair with one of his cousins (a revelation that is severely undermined once you learn that his wife, Eleanor, was also a cousin of his. The Roosevelts kept it in the family).
The film falls into the trap most historical films do, that because an event occurred, it then must occur, and we as audience must just accept that and not question the why or how of it all. So it is, somewhat impressively that the films takes quite a long time to get going, while also speeding through a lot of background. We see them meet, we see them take a few drives in the country, we're treated to the most tasteful handjob scene I've seen in a while, and suddenly everything is in full swing. We are asked to accept that Daisy was brought into the house, without question, simply because it happened
More then feeling forced and inorganic, it is intrusive. For the sake of "dramatic tension," the perfectly enjoyable Royals story line is abruptly interrupted so that some struggle can be added to Daisy's story, struggle, it should be noted that only appears at the end of the second act. But the struggle isn't particularly engaging, and is resolved with little or no greater effect on the characters. Yet again, the Royal's storyline gets abruptly terminated so that Daisy can treat us to another rambling narration. There are so many montages that gloss over weeks, or months, or (if the narration suggests) years, it feels like they started filming with a half finished script. More the truth, the script was only half a film when complete, and shows all the tell tale signs of being slapped together. It is remarkably amateur at points, and at others shines.
By the end, you don't know what to think of it. It's confusing, more often then not. When it's good, it is very good, but when it falls apart, it falls completely to pieces. I'm left ambivalent because of it, as I fell that I haven't watched a whole film, and am waiting for the rest of it. Murray was very good though. So, that's something. Just not enough.