Unadventurous and ultimately forgettable, Hyde Park on Hudson played at the Lone Star Film Festival last month to an appreciative reception, and it begins a regular theatrical run in North Texas this weekend. Based on a stage play by Richard Nelson, the movie takes place in summer 1939 and is told from the point of view of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney), a recently impoverished woman who now takes care of her aunt in upstate New York. Out of the blue, she’s called up by her distant relative, President Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray), who wants some friendly company to distract him as he runs the government from his mother’s house nearby. Daisy thus has a prime viewing spot when King George VI of England (Samuel West) arrives with Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) in tow to pay a royal visit to the president and to secretly ask for America’s help if England is drawn into the looming world war.
The royals’ arrival kicks the comedy into gear, as the monarchs react quizzically to the oddities and informalities of their American hosts. Informed that the president intends to serve them hot dogs at a picnic, the king and queen whisper among themselves, trying to figure out whether they’re being made fun of. As the well-starched but stressed-out king, West steals a good portion of the laughs here, which is no small achievement given Murray’s presence.
Yet the proceedings are dragged down during the half of the movie that’s about Daisy. As she drifts into a sexual relationship with the president, she has to maneuver among the other women in his house, including possibly gay First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams), Franklin’s domineering mother (Elizabeth Wilson), and his secretary (Elizabeth Marvel), who turns out to be also sharing his bed. This yields one memorable flash of anger — a Linney specialty — but otherwise, any complicated emotions this character might feel get drowned in the movie’s gentle humor. Daisy’s voiceover narrative becomes a drone of woolly sentiments, and we can’t fathom why the movie spends so much time with her with so many historical figures milling around.
Oh, but there is a reason, and it comes out in Franklin’s line, “We think [the public] sees all our flaws, but that’s not what they’re looking to find when they look to us.” The movie expresses longing for some more innocent time when the press didn’t report on Roosevelt’s polio or King George’s speech impediment because most people didn’t want to know. Perhaps we know too much about our public figures today, but this movie muddies its case by portraying marital infidelity as a minor peccadillo. I’m not sure that ignoring the misbehavior of politicians and celebrities would lead to a better world. Either way, Hyde Park on Hudson doesn’t answer the questions it raises in any depth, and so it’s little more than a cozy exercise in nostalgia.
Hyde Park on Hudson
Starring Laura Linney and Bill Murray. Directed by Roger Michell. Written by Richard Nelson, based on his own play. Rated PG-13.