This offbeat tale of presidential romance is a high-toned dud — a surprise, given its talented cast, scandalous subject matter and trim 94-minute running time.
The year is 1939, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) is governing from his rustic hideaway in Hyde Park, N.Y. He decides to seek companionship and a measure of release in the arms of his distant cousin Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), who goes by the name of Daisy. Around the same time, the recently crowned King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), are due for a visit. King George (the same stammering monarch who was portrayed with humble diffidence by Colin Firth in "The King's Speech") is hoping to drum up American support for the coming war with Germany.
The film clumsily juxtaposes the president's gentle initiation of his new lover and his first meetings with the young, inexperienced British king. In each case, FDR's seduction style is rather genteel — he uses his stamp collection and the bucolic backcountry of the Hudson Valley as props and conversation starters. In Daisy, he finds a reliable and demure addition to his harem of secretaries and helpmeets. George is a bit more of a puzzle. The Hyde Park house is positively down-market by royal standards, and Roosevelt uses this to his advantage to take a bit of the starch out of King George, to make him more sympathetic to the American public.
Roosevelt dotes on both Daisy and George in an avuncular way. He seems genuinely to like George, but there isn't much spark in the film's kissing-cousins romance. Daisy floats about like thistle fluff, bobbing wherever the story takes her, seemingly without any will or intention of her own. She raises a fuss when she discovers she's not the only name on the president's extramarital dance card, but she's rather easily cooled out.
Bill Murray disappoints as Roosevelt. The physical impression is well done, but the performance seems to stop with the clenched cigarette holder and the jaunty grin. Mr. Murray stubbornly refuses to offer any glimmer of Roosevelt's inner life. He's a purveyor of bracing good fellowship and little more. By comparison, Olivia Williams is a cool drink of water as Eleanor Roosevelt. She portrays the first lady in this farce with great good humor, especially in those scenes where she pointedly declines to make a show of acknowledging the royal couple with a curtsey.
The story hinges on Daisy's observations, not because her affair with Roosevelt is of surpassing interest, but because of her value as a witness to historical events. Suckley was a real-life figure who, before her presidential ministrations became the subject of this film, was best known for having given FDR his dog Fala. Her diaries and letters form the basis of the events of "Hyde Park on Hudson." If the film's insipid voice-over is any indication of Miss Suckley's inner life, Laura Linney does a marvelous job of portraying her as a blandly affectless wallflower.
Roosevelt's first assignation with Daisy, tastefully shot from a discreet distance across a field of flowers, won't soon be forgotten by anyone who sees this movie. The scenes of the crippled Roosevelt being carried from photo-op to photo-op by a personal aide are touching, and the complicity of the press in shielding Roosevelt's paralysis and his romantic dalliances from the public is artfully shown. But stripped of its famous characters and historical intrigues, "Hyde Park on Hudson" is essentially a mediocre period piece of the weekend-in-the-country variety.
TITLE: "Hyde Park on Hudson"
CREDITS: Directed by Roger Michell, written by Richard Nelson
RATING: R for language and sexual themes
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS