[Monkey See will be at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) through the middle of this week. We'll be bringing you our takes on films both large and small, from people both well-known and not.]
If there's one thing I wish I could tell Hollywood biographers and be sure they'd believe me, it would be this: you don't necessarily have to be interesting to get a famous person to have an affair with you, so having had an affair with a famous person doesn't make you a good subject for a biographical film.
Hyde Park On Hudson concerns Franklin Roosevelt and his distant cousin - not the one he married, Eleanor, but the one he allegedly had an affair with, Daisy. The film explains how she came to visit and sort of never left, once he discovered that she loved long car rides, which in this version of the story (said to be based on her later-discovered letters and diaries) sometimes included non-car-ride-related activities. Unfortunately, loving long car rides is about all we know of her for a very long time. She likes rides in the car, she was bored, and she took up with FDR. What did she do before that? What did she think about or want before that? We have no idea.
The film's structure is sort of a mess - after the first act sets up the relationship, the second act abandons it to pay attention to something much more fun - a visit from the King and Queen of England, the very same royals who were so memorably played a couple of years ago by Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth. Here, they're played by Olivia Colman and Samuel West. The interplay between FDR and King Bertie is much better developed than his dull relationship with Daisy, which is good for this section of the film but bad for the film as a whole. Daisy isn't even around for most of the royal visit, so devoting probably a third of the film to it is a strange choice, and if there's meant to be some underlying implication of that visit for the Franklin-Daisy relationship, it isn't evident. By the time Daisy returns for a final act that doesn't make much sense in which her reactions seem largely random, she's ceased to matter to the story.
What makes Daisy's lifelessness so surprising is that she's played by Laura Linney, who generally brings every character she inhabits a certain breath of life that Daisy simply doesn't have. Furthermore, FDR is played by Bill Murray, which at least gives Murray a chance to explore yet another side of his surprisingly versatile talent. He's good at disappearing into this rather unlikely role, and he has a nice scene or two with West, but he never emerges as a whole person. Perhaps that simply underscores just how emotionally absent he was from his relationship with Daisy, but in the end, there's just not a lot there.
My guess is that a lot of people will like Hyde Park On Hudson simply because Bill Murray is so unlike himself that is impossible not to admire his transformation. In fact, despite the fact that he really only plays a couple of meaningful scenes, I suspect an Oscar nomination is a near-certainty. But because the relationship with Daisy never seems to really matter, Murrays performance is largely wasted on the film as a whole.
I will say this, however: Hyde Park On Hudson is one of the prettiest movies I've seen this year, and it will undoubtedly be so for anyone whose special affection is for the late 1930s and early 1940s. There is a sequence when Daisy and Franklin's car rides are still very new when their excursions into the hills seem so scenic and stunning that it appears that something magical is going to happen. But then it doesn't. It's all setting and no story, all beauty and no humanity except from the King and Queen, who are intriguing but ultimately beside the point. And that's a shame.
Hyde Park On Hudson will be released in the U.S. on December 7.