Bland Hyde Park on the Hudson, about a 1939 weekend sojourn between the FDR, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, doesn’t do much to illuminate Roosevelt and even less to enliven its decidedly slight chapter of history. It wants to be a whimsical comedy but never strikes the proper tone, instead offering a stilted drama that never takes off. It’s the kind of picture you keep waiting to get better, because given its characters and subject, how can it not? And then it doesn’t.
Directed by Roger Michell (Persuasion, Notting Hill) the initial and more interesting part of the picture details the blossoming relationship between Roosevelt (a miscast Bill Murray, working hard) and fifth cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney, narrating), as the pair not-so-tentatively dance around courting each other via long country drives where Daisy has no issue giving front seat hand jobs. Yes, the movie really goes there, presenting the idea of a philandering commander-in-chief as ripe melodrama. Not exactly an a-ha.
The film sets up a potentially rich comic situation on the arrival of England’s finest (Samuel West, Olivia Colman), seeking alliance for impeding World War II. Yet instead of a political meeting of the minds, Hyde Park on Hudson is more concerned with the royals interpretation of the “hot dogs” to be served and whether the mansion’s artwork ridicules them. This all culminates in a ho-hum picnic that “forges a special relationship” between American and England. Uh-huh.
The historical details are sometimes right—yes, FDR is polio-stricken and First Lady Eleanor (Olivia Williams) lives separately—but oddly the movie feels far removed from anything historically relevant. We’re left wondering exactly what we are meant to take away, and the scattershot screenplay by Richard Nelson is insight-free.
Linney appears to be acting in a better picture, pining away about her unrequited love for FDR while chain smoking in the moonlight—she may be the best actress in America capable of radiating deep intellect that pushes down emotions, fiercely cerebral and with focal precision in every picture. But Hyde Park on Hudson gives her no real arc and while she clearly puts her heart into it, the character is fuzzy and disjointed. Given that FDR comes off as such an unappealing louse, it’s hard to root for things to work out.
Naggingly, Hyde Park on Hudson is also the second screen incarnation in as many years of stuttering King George, and Hyde Park on Hudson can’t help but echo that recent and vastly superior picture. This time out, the endless scenes of stuttering, including the picture’s intended turning point where FDR and George bond, wore me out.
While obviously designed as a prestige holiday picture, Hyde Park on Hudson is a bizarrely off-putting picture, understated and lacking in any dramatic urgency. It feels like the dramatic and comedic elements have been excised and despite the obviously talented ensemble, the picture struggles to find a reason to be – and doesn’t.