1 February 2013

Review: Hyde Park on Hudson

(Dir: Roger Michell, 2012)

It’s intriguing how in the last two years a couple of the films selected as Gala performances at the London Film Festival have gone on to be poorly reviewed and underperformers at the box office. You’d expect that to be selected for such a position in a prestigious festival that a certain quality would be inherent. What particulalry comes to mind is Fernando Meirelles' 360, opening film of 2011, which received a critical mauling and made zero dent in the UK box office taking in only £25k on its opening weekend. Hyde Park on Hudson is another of those, positioned as the Centrepiece Gala in 2012 and with a less than favourable 40% on Rotten Tomatoes (if you find that site a useful arbiter of critical opinion), I have a feeling it too won’t do well at the UK box office (edit: just to prove that point it opened with £135k at no.15 in the UK). All this makes you start to wonder why these films are getting selected for such high profile screenings.

Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t as bad as the Rotten Tomatoes score suggests however. It’s a slight film and you can imagine critics expecting more of it, particularly as it concerns a US president and British royalty. Perhaps it suffers from surfacing around the time of the far weightier Lincoln? (Read a review of that here.) Much like Lincoln though, Hyde Park on Hudson’s key strength lies with the acting. Bill Murray plays the polio riddled Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, constantly constricted to chairs as his legs no longer work. He’s not played for sympathy but is both likeable and affable. There is no politics or even power really, this is more about the man and his desire to escape from the pressures around him. Murray’s performance is high quality and enjoyable to watch, even when our perceptions of him start to shift into less favourable light. 

The film is seen through the eyes of Laura Linney’s Daisy who quickly falls for the man. Linney is decent but we learn little about her character aside from her thoughts about FDR. It takes a while but the film finally comes alive when English royalty, in the shape of King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), arrive to spend two days in the country with the Roosevelts. At first it’s a comedy of manners as the uptight Queen is less than impressed by the Americans and the idea of hot dogs in particular, all of which is mildly amusing, but it turns into something more interesting about two afflicted men of power. West plays the King well – inevitably his performance will be overshadowed by Colin Firth’s Oscar winning portrayal from The King’s Speech, but this is a version of the man who’s scared but has his prickliness thawed out more easily. The scene where he and Roosevelt open up to each other is fascinating and the best in the film. It’s within these moments that the heart of the film seems to lie.

The rest of Hyde Park on Hudson is played out too lightly. Although Daisy’s relationship with FDR is the crux of the story it really isn’t that interesting, aside from one dramatic scene, and if anything it’s under-explored as a result of so much attention being given to the visit of the royals, which actually turns out to be a good thing. Colman also puts in a good turn as the coldly aloof Queen in an alien land. The way the film was shot proves somewhat distracting, with an over-reliance on hand-held cameras and too much unnecessarily shaky motion, which only really works in the driving scenes. However Murray’s performance is the anchor here and he reminds why he has always been such a compelling actor; quietly in there he is the warmth of the film. Hyde Park on Hudson felt like a gentle break away from all the high drama found at the cinema recently. Pleasant, subtle and nothing more.

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