the story: FDR develops a relationship with his fifth-cousin while entertaining British monarchs struggling with public relations problems.
what it's all about: It's a terrible shame that Hyde Park on Hudson was allowed to slip out of general awareness so easily. Bill Murray gives one of his few non-Bill Murray performances, which is to say he builds a performance, a character, other than Bill Murray. Now, Bill Murray being Bill Murray is usually a reliable source of entertainment, but it also creates a situation where the actor becomes highly underrated as a performer. This is what happened after his '80s boom, which stretched into the early '90s: like Robin Williams, it wasn't until he underwent a dramatic twist in the '00s that critics started taking Murray seriously again. You can pinpoint Lost in Translation, his melancholic study of jaded celebrity, as the turning point, and yet, all it really meant was that audiences continued to not really care about him anymore, and that critics did. (It was the same with Williams, who at least had been alternating serious and comedic roles all along, culminating in Good Will Hunting, at which point it seemed okay to forget he existed.)
What's ironic about all of this, in relation to Hyde Park, is that Murray's take on FDR is a complete revelation for reasons beyond Murray's performance. In a lot of ways, Hyde Park is a better version of the Oscar-winning The King's Speech, from a mere two years earlier. This was a fawning, unconvincing attempt to dramatize how poor King George got over his speech impediment and rallied the British against the Nazis. This was incredible for any number of reasons, not the least because history records Churchill as the lion of that cause, with nothing in King's Speech remotely contradicting it. Really, it was one long piece of propaganda, trying to justify continuing fascination with an increasingly irrelevant monarchy.
Where Hyde Park gets it right is making George and Elizabeth human rather than a bunch of movie stars gamely trying to hoodwink the audience. The fact that neither of the actors playing them are household names, where the ones playing Roosevelt and the two women in the spotlight around him (Murray, Laura Linney as the fifth-cousin, and Olivia Williams as Eleanor), none of whom resort to caricatures (the best thing about King's Speech is Geoffrey Rush being Geoffrey Rush, which is always a winning formula), are, goes to sort of prove the point. This is an intimate piece of history.
Granted, there's much dispute as to how factual it is. The fifth-cousin wrote about this affair in letters that didn't circulate for decades, and the characterization of Eleanor is called suspect, too, but the effect is itself a revelation: whether or not it's true, it still humanizes Roosevelt. There's this popular image of the polio-stricken president as superman, both for his New Deal and the way he handled WWII, along the way serving a historic three terms and being elected to four. Yet for all that, it's uncanny that he's all but dominated by his mother in this movie. Who knew?
It's that kind of insight that makes Hyde Park a truly winning experience, its leisurely pace, the way it not only contradicts everything we know about Murray, but also makes him almost incidental to the movie itself, which is narrated by Linney, who for whatever reason has fallen out of favor in Hollywood and with critics. Both of them further strong cases for already-stellar careers in this movie.
Right now there's a big struggle about the importance of seeming important in movies. I guess it mostly depends on whether or not it strikes the right note, whatever that means. I think most of why Hyde Park had to be downplayed was because King's Speech had already covered some of this territory and had gotten plenty of awards glitz for it. Critics couldn't very well admit that just a few years later someone did it better, and quite handily. They like to say bombast kills subtlety, but when it comes to which is bombastic and which is subtle, I think of the two, Hyde Park makes a good case for what truly merits applause.
Reduce it only to Murray's revelatory performance if you must. But on that score alone, Hyde Park on Hudson deserves much more attention than it's gotten.