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(2012) (Bill Murray, Laura Linney) (R)

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Drama: The distant cousin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt becomes his close confidant as he spends time at his country retreat.
It's the late 1930s and Franklin D. Roosevelt (BILL MURRAY), worn down by his continuous efforts to bring America out of the Great Depression, gets away for periods of time at his Hyde Park, New York country estate. With his relationship with wife Eleanor (OLIVIA WILLIAMS) strained at best and despite having a close relationship with his person assistant, Missy (ELIZABETH MARVEL), he's asked his distant cousin who lives nearby, Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (LAURA LINNEY), to spend time with him and be his close confidant. After all, while most everyone wants something from him, and all he wants to do is relax, the fact that Daisy has no desires means she's perfect for him.

Except that she begins to desire him, a development that gets interrupted by the arrival of King George (SAMUEL WEST) and Queen Elizabeth (OLIVIA COLMAN) who have arrived in Hyde Park with hopes of convincing FDR to support Britain against the growing menace of Adolf Hitler. With the Queen certain that the President is trying to put them in their place, Roosevelt seems to know exactly what he's doing, even as Daisy longs to spend more time with him.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I can't imagine being a celebrity, otherwise famous person or especially a politician nowadays. After all, with handheld video and mounted surveillance cameras everywhere along with open microphones, no action outside of one's home is safe from the potential of being recorded and possibly used against you. That's particularly true in the world of politics where anything done or said -- be that in context or taken out of it -- can and will be used against them, usually in a relentless fashion.

With that framing, it's hard to imagine an era when that didn't occur. Granted, before the advent of home video, only a handful of people had 8 or 16mm film cameras, so the potential of some nobody happening upon some action, word or gesture and capturing that for the world to see was slim to none. But the press was always around, so it's interesting that from the days of President Kennedy and going backwards there was an unwritten, gentleman's type agreement that personal issues, be they of the health or extramarital variety, were off limits.

Accordingly, most of the public never learned of JFK's affairs until much later, while the majority of Americans were unaware of the same with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt or his long-standing physical condition (attributed to the aftereffects of polio at the time) and declining health during his extra long administration. Then again, considering America was in and then coming out of the Great Depression and ended up fighting on two fronts in WWII, perhaps the powers that be decided that any unnecessary distractions might harm the common good.

Whatever the case, FDR -- the only president to serve three consecutive terms, constructor of the New Deal and much more -- managed to "fool" most of the people most of the time, even if the press knew about his affairs and obviously could see his physical condition (usually in a wheelchair in private and otherwise propped up with metal braces on his legs in public).

That and his eventual involvement in leading America into war are what fuel "Hyde Park on Hudson," a so-so drama so named for Roosevelt's birthplace and location of his getaway retreat. Starring Bill Murray in probably the most unlikely casting choice most could imagine (but that actually ends up working after one gets acclimated to the sight), the plot is reportedly somewhat based on the discovered diary entries, letters and so on written by one Margaret "Daisy" Suckley upon her death at the age of 99.

She was the Hyde Park neighbor and distant cousin of the President who ended up spending a great deal of time with him, eventually resulting in intellectual and possibly physical intimacy between them. As directed by Roger Michell ("Notting Hill"), the film mixes elements of that, along his affair with his private secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), much to the disdain of his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), with the royal visit by King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) who hope to persuade him to up America's ante with Great Britain regarding Hitler's rise to power.

While the latter isn't really the focus of Richard Nelson's script, and it takes a decent amount of time before it develops and then plays out, it's the film's most rewarding element. Watching Murray's FDR subtly manipulate the royals in an obvious power play, along with the Queen's huffy reaction to their treatment, is fairly enjoyable.

What doesn't work is the overall wallflower cousin bit as she observes history unfolding in front of her eyes. While Linney is a great actress, that whole thrust of the plot doesn't end up being as interesting as it might initially seem, and it's certainly not terribly entertaining, disturbing (there's a sexual moment early on between the distant cousins) or informative. It's just sort of there, a listless part of the story that ultimately does little good for the film, even when we're obviously supposed to feel bad for Linney's character in terms of how she's treated.

Aside from the dynamics of the FDR meets British royalty matter, the most interesting thing is watching Murray transform himself into one of America's best known and beloved (at least in hindsight) presidents. That said, it does take a while to get used to the sight as it's still obviously the actor best known for films such as "Stripes," "Ghostbusters" and "Groundhog Day" playing an iconic political and national figure.

Thankfully, it never feels like satire along the lines of "Saturday Night Live" (where Murray got his first big break 35 years ago, a few years longer than the time between that appearance and FDR's death), and once the acceptance comes about, it's easy to buy the actor in the role. His performance is good, but not quite Oscar caliber, a quality the overall film never comes close to attaining. Decent in spurts, "Hyde Park on Hudson" can't hide its issues from the press (or anyone else) and thus rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 20, 2012 / Posted December 14, 2012

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