The frenetic, comic and boozy visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth to the private home of President Franklin Roosevelt on the eve of World War II might make for a jaunty comedy of manners in the Downton Abbey vein.
The movie director Roger Michell and writer Richard Nelson chose to make about this comical and pivotal point in the Anglo-American “special relationship” is more expose, more sordid than jaunty.
Even if Hyde Park on Hudson had been about the witty, canny and empathetic womanizer FDR and his handling of the Great Brits, it might have worked. But Michell and Nelson, on whose play this is based, were more interested in the base and somewhat under-sourced suggestions of an affair revealed by the letters of Roosevelt intimate Margaret Suckley.
To which most will say, “We’ve heard. He’s still considered one of our greatest presidents. He’s still the face we see on every American dime. Anything else?”
Laura Linney plays Daisy, a spinster fifth cousin of the Roosevelts who is summoned from taking care of her aunt to the president’s side during one of his visits to his mother’s New York estate. He (Bill Murray) needs family, friends, “lady friends,” to take his mind off the weight of the world.
In their awkward first meeting, she can’t make eye contact, he can’t stop drinking martinis. And when he offers to let her see his stamp collection, the path is set for that day when she can narrate, “I knew that we were now not just fifth cousins, but very good friends.” Apparently, stamp collections were a great pick-up line back in the day.
Yes, the movie says, it was sexual. And no, the evidence is barely sketchy.
Daisy narrates the famous story of the royal visit made by the newly-crowned stammerer King George VI (Samuel West) and his snooty wife, the future “Queen Mum,” Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). Unlike the protective, adoring wife of The King’s Speech, this Elizabeth is testy, forever comparing “Bertie” to his brother, the king who abdicated to be with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
As Daisy sees them, the royals are underwhelmed by Americans, especially an American upper class which can’t reach that Downton Abbey level of service. And they’re worried, with war on the horizon in Europe, desperate for America to be ready and willing to help, despite evidence that nobody over here is the least bit impressed by their pedigree or their plight.
Franklin works them and charms them. He is forever summoning Daisy to his side, making light of the schemes of his “crazy” wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams of An Education, with false teeth).
The movie hinges on Murray’s turn as FDR, and frankly, he comes up wanting. He looks and sounds nothing like the man, and barely makes an effort to rectify that. The famous teeth-clinched-around-cigarette-holder smile is replaced by a creepy, cadaverous upper-teeth-only grin that doesn’t work at all.
The scenes suggesting president and king developing a rapport barely come off, though at least Murray’s enough of an old ham to manage the jokes well enough. Sometimes, underplaying has its limits.
Hyde Park on Hudson is a frustrating comedy and a half-hearted expose, a “coming of age” picture that suggests Daisy’s early naivete is replaced by something more “sophisticated,” if not more cynical. That’s not something the story, the advertising for the movie or its title promise. Not at all.