Laura Linney returns to Telluride with stuffy 'Hyde Park on Hudson'

Posted by · 9:19 pm · August 31st, 2012

TELLURIDE – Actress Laura Linney — a part-time Telluride resident — missed the festival last year for the first time in eight years. Well, she’s back this year with the film that kept her away in 2011.

However, it was odd to more than a few that the festival decided to plop the world premiere of Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson” in the Abel Gance outdoor cinema this year. It’s happened in the past, of course. But somehow, films like “Into the Wild,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Paranormal Activity” make more sense than a tiny, stuffy drama about a former president’s affair with a distant cousin.

But it is what it is, and the movie is what it is, too: problematic. The above logline aside, the film is also about a visit by the royal family — King George VI and Queen Consort Elizabeth (recently portrayed by Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in “The King’s Speech,” but here taken on by Samuel West and Olivia Colman) — to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Hyde Park, New York retreat on the eve of war. They’d like a little help, you see, but the young king is struggling with confidence issues, while his strong-willed wife is obsessed with appearances (“They want us to eat hot dogs? What are they trying to say??”).

A lot of that stuff works, actually. The film’s best scene by far is a late-night smoking room chat between Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and the King. The President confides in the King, and vice versa. It’s a fatherly sort of conversation that the young monarch clearly needed and it makes one of the stronger cases for the film’s central theme: our rulers are people, too. (The old “he has to put his pants on one leg at a time” adage is even tossed in there somewhere.)

But the history lesson ultimately isn’t the story screenwriter Richard Nelson, adapting from his radio play, is interested in telling. The relationship Roosevelt had with Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney) — his fifth or sixth cousin, “depending on how you count” — is the dramatic draw for him. But all of that just grinds the proceedings to a halt. Linney is fine in the role, but the whole romantic drama feels like “The Real World: Hyde Park.” It never quite paints a portrait of a meaningful companionship and really just presents FDR as a total, well, player.

Murray is good as the commander-in-chief, though it feels like a bit of a supporting performance. He really shines in scenes with West, and that scene mentioned above is one of the few moments when it feels like the character’s layers are really peeled back. That’s an odd thing, given that FDR’s relationship with Suckley is supposed to be a fresh air thing for him to be himself and relax.

Olivia Williams ought to be mentioned in the role of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She’s given a lot of funny bits to chew on. Colman, meanwhile, is properly prim and nails the subtle humor when it’s called for.

But ultimately, “Hyde Park on Hudson” lacks cinematic heft and never breaks free of its confined radio play roots. I’m sure it was a lovely discovery when all of those letters were found in a shoebox under Suckley’s bed after she died at the age of 100, but maybe the story plays better in those notes and scribbles than it does on the big screen.

Other odds and ends: I caught Ben Affleck’s “Argo” this afternoon, which is the festival’s only Sneak Preview this year. I’ll write it up in due time (it’s fantastic), but here’s Greg Ellwood’s review in the meantime. I also saw Michael Winterbottom’s latest, “Everyday,” which hasn’t inspired me to write much, hours removed. But the film’s young stars offer up some of the best child performances I’ve seen. Very natural and raw.

More as it happens.

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