Hyde Park on Hudson depicts the historic first visit by an English monarch to the United States during a weekend in which nothing quite goes right. One could say much the same of the film itself, which gives us a rather tantalizing opportunity to see Bill Murray play President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, among a cast that includes Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, and Olivia Williams, and yet never quite congeals into a thing really anyone would feel compelled to watch.
For one, the stakes are disarmingly low, and somewhat ill-focused. The central plot, such as it is, is fairly intriguing. King George VI (you may remember him when he was played, better, by Colin Firth, though Samuel West acquits himself well enough) and Queen Elizabeth (Colman) is only humbling himself on U.S. shores because, by June of 1939 (when the film takes place), Britain was in a tough spot, facing imminent war with Germany and unsure they could really take them on, so to speak. When the focus is truly on this multi-layered conflict, it’s fairly interesting. The centerpiece late-night chat with Bertie (as the King prefers to be called) and FDR is a small bit of magic, and even if it’s a little too proud of itself for existing, one feels it’s somewhat earned it.
That it carries this same pride with it the rest of the film may be its great undoing. While Murray can light up just about any scene he’s in, the same can hardly be said for West and Colman, who are saddled with more scenes than you could possibly imagine. Also doing no small amount of clean-up is Linney as Daisy, Roosevelt’s distant cousin and, in the course of the film, sometime romantic partner. The film is ostensibly from her point of view, adapted to one extent or another by a diary that was discovered after the real Daisy’s death, though the exact nature of their true relationship is something of a point of contention, it seems.
But that’s besides the point. The point is that Daisy’s romantic pining and Eleanor-isn’t-right-for-him protests make for severely less compelling drama than anything else going on in the film, which wouldn’t be such a hindrance had the film room to stretch beyond its 95-minute (with credits!) running time. As it is, we can’t help but sense much greater drama within the Roosevelt’s marriage (Williams, as Eleanor, is characteristically scene-stealing with very few scenes to even attempt theft), his manner of running the country, the impending war, any sense of anything that might exist outside the titular estate. And had the film truly committed to Daisy’s perspective, it might be somewhat informative, but its contentedness with luxuriating in rooms she’s long since left dismisses any such possibilities. Her point-of-view is a crutch leaned upon when necessary, so they can always script a voiceover saying, “He never told me, but I suspect…” when a true literary solution evades the author (the film was written by Richard Nelson, adapting his own play).
Director Roger Michell, it must be said, is doing work here well beyond what the screenplay calls for, but is unable to elevate his considerably dull template. His frames are immaculately conceived, and were I to merely select his most accomplished frames, the casual reader would be forgiven for thinking this film an overlooked masterpiece. Even for myself, however, eager as I am to forgive a film innumerable flaws if it has a consistently engaging palette, the screenplay was so leaden, so fawning, and so diverting that I could simply go no further. As though someone saw The King’s Speech and decided they needed to make a film with even lower stakes and less intrigue, Hyde Park on Hudson is hardly one of the year’s worst, but somehow even worse for that.
Hyde Park on Hudson opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 7th, expanding to other cities throughout December.