Maybe there’s a good movie to be made about the affair between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a distant cousin. I wouldn’t bet on it, and Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t it in any case. A languid, tedious effort that never bothers to get to the heart of its characters, the film is a shallow reading of a significant time told mostly from the viewpoint of a lifeless character. Lincoln, it is not.
Set in 1939, in the waning days of the Great Depression, the movie is built on a dalliance puffed up to assume importance because of the time period. War is brewing again across the Atlantic. England is desperate for U.S. intervention against Germany and is sending its best emissary — the king — to ask the reluctant president for help.
Hyde Park on Hudson views this royal visit, scheduled to take place at FDR’s New York estate, through the eyes of FDR’s fifth (or sixth — she isn’t sure) cousin Daisy (Laura Linney). Daisy lives quietly with her aunt and tells us solemnly in voiceover that they used to have money but have it no longer. She comes to her famous cousin’s notice for reasons that are never quite clear. She’s dull and unimpressive; she displays neither great wit, intelligence nor beauty; she tends to lurk on the fringes, waiting to be noticed. And she definitely doesn’t possess the emotional weight on which to build a movie.
Still, though he doesn’t lack for female companionship, the president (Bill Murray) summons Daisy to his side as a confidant. Soon they are taking drives through the country. “He said I helped him forget the weight of the world,” Daisy tells us. She proves her usefulness the day he waves off the security following them, and they indulge in a noncousinly and unsavory little encounter. Afterward, Daisy tells us: “I knew we were not just fifth cousins.” We think: Well, of course not, you simpleton.
Director Roger Michell (Morning Glory, Venus) is fond of trailing around behind his characters, so every time someone enters a room, we get a good look at the nape of a neck. He’s less adept at showing us why we should care much about Daisy, especially when we get glimpses of the enigmatic Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams), a far more intriguing character. Linney is a terrific actress who has little to work with here; Daisy doesn’t do much but hang around waiting for Franklin to spare a few moments for her. When she learns that she’s not the president’s only paramour, her rage and subsequent forgiveness seem manufactured just to give the featherweight screenplay some drama.
Murray gets the outward FDR right, displaying a shiny charisma as he chomps on the cigarette holder. He never reflects the inner man, though of course the script doesn’t really allow him much room. His best moments come during a private, late-night meeting with the young king (Samuel West, playing the same stuttering monarch that won Colin Firth an Oscar in The King’s Speech). The wily older man flatters and manipulates the younger, two sorts of royalty feeling the other out for signs of weakness — or strength. But instead of moments like that, Hyde Park on Hudson inexplicably prefers to show us Daisy stewing in a corner, convincing us that none of this matters much at all.
Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Olivia Williams.
Director: Roger Michell.
Screenwriter: Richard Nelson.
Producers: David Aukin, Kevin Loader.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 94 minutes. Brief sexuality. Playing at: In Miami-Dade: Aventura, Intracoastal, South Beach, Sunset; in Broward: Gateway, Sawgrass.