On the face of it, “Hyde Park on Hudson” appears to have that chirpy, once-over-lightly approach to history that we’ve seen recently in movies like “The King’s Speech.” Get attractive people playing historical figures, add nice costumes, ladle over with cute one-liners and a touch of inspiration, and you’ve got a package.
“Hyde Park” has some of those qualities. But it also has a weird undercurrent, given that the central issue here is not a royal stutter but the passive sexual needs of an aristocratic president.
The president is Franklin Roosevelt, portrayed here by Bill Murray. Yes, the casting is promising, and yes, Murray has a few interesting moments. But he underplays most of it, and somehow the dazzling personality of FDR does not call for underplaying.
It’s the 1930s, and Roosevelt is at his house in upper New York state. A distant cousin, Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), is summoned to the president’s home in the hopes of helping him “relax” and “take his mind off” the concerns of world politics.
If you have a dirty mind and you think that invitation sounds a little suspicious, you are correct. Whatever the original intention is of inviting the meek and mild Daisy into the presidential sphere, the man himself is pleased to receive any intimate attention Daisy might bestow.
As this relationship carries on, Hyde Park prepares for a visit from the royal couple we’ve seen so much of in movies lately, George VI and Elizabeth of Great Britain. The two are visiting the U.S. in the hopes of bolstering American support for the war in Europe that is sure to come.
The various strands of Richard Nelson’s script are rooted in fact. The real Daisy left behind a cache of letters describing her closeness to FDR, although Nelson and director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) have speculated a bit beyond the historical record.
Nothing can quite excuse the extremely silly treatment of the royals, who are played with spirit by Samuel West and Olivia Colman. The exception is a late-night conversation between King George and President Franklin, who share a moment of bonding that becomes the tenderest connection we see in the film.
It’s also one of the movie’s only indications that Roosevelt was a first-rate political strategist. But then we don’t know much about Daisy, either; Laura Linney tries her best to make Daisy into something other than a simpering doormat, but this is a tough role.
By contrast, we have a trio of fierce women on the periphery of the story. There’s Eleanor Roosevelt (the ultra-sharp Olivia Williams) — who asks the Queen, “May I call you Elizabeth?” despite being instructed not to ask that — and Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), FDR’s on-top-of-it secretary. And his rather formidable mother, played by Elizabeth Wilson in a few devastating strokes.
Poor Daisy is a simpleton compared to these savvy ladies. Which makes her a decidedly uninspiring point of entry for what must have been a fascinating world.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” (2 stars)
At Franklin Roosevelt’s getaway in upper New York state, the president engages in an intimate friendship with his distant cousin (Laura Linney) and prepares for a rather silly royal visit. Bill Murray plays FDR, in an underplayed style that fails to kindle the man’s personality; the movie around him can’t reconcile its cute approach with the story’s seamy undercurrent.
Rated: R for subject matter.