Film Review: Hyde Park on Hudson

A Roosevelt cousin remembers her affair with the President and when the King and Queen of England visited the Hyde Park estate.

An uneven blend of fact and fantasy, Hyde Park on Hudson works best as a glimpse into a vanished world of aristocratic privilege. Set in and around the Roosevelt compound in New York's Hudson Valley, the film recreates a visit from the King and Queen of England, and, with less success, an affair the President had with a distant cousin. Part bedroom farce and part sordid tell-all, Hyde Park on Hudson never establishes a convincing tone.

The film is narrated by Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), a fifth cousin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray). The impoverished Daisy is called to the Roosevelt compound to entertain the President during one of his periodic visits. Conversations between the two progress to rides through the countryside, culminating in a sexual relationship.

The mousy Daisy becomes a fixture at Hyde Park, tolerated by the President's old-fashioned mother (Elizabeth Wilson) and his more progressive wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams). The First Lady is rarely present, preferring to stay in her own nearby cottage. Roosevelt's personal secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) is less accommodating to Daisy, and the President's assistant Tommy (Martin McDougall) can be downright gruff.

As Daisy will soon discover, Roosevelt has plenty of lovers, including Missy and a wealthy wife who has built a remote cabin reserved for trysts. Daisy must choose between her pride and servicing the President, a choice made all the more unpalatable by Missy's territorial attitude.

Director Roger Michell handles the film's sexual elements with a degree of restraint. Still, Daisy's story feels creepy instead of romantic. As portrayed by Linney, she's a naive, poverty-stricken girl seduced into an affair with an abusive, serial philanderer. Linney's gushing voiceover only highlights the film's queasy morals.

As Roosevelt, Bill Murray doesn't bother with prosthetics and accents. Instead, his President is an expert manipulator, someone with penetrating insight into character, a force of nature who can bend anyone to his will. It's a clever, carefully modulated performance, even when the actor is forced to be a heel.

Despite Murray's presence, much of Hyde Park on Hudson feels slow and plodding, with the camera swooning over gleaming period props and pop tunes warbling behind pastoral interludes. But when the King and Queen of England arrive, the film suddenly sparks to life.

It's the first royal visit to the United States, and the filmmakers delight in detailing the culture shock between the two leading classes. Desperate for support in the war against Germany, King George VI, or Bertie (Samuel West), is also insecure enough to worry that the Americans are taunting him. (This is the same stuttering Bertie from the Oscar-winning The King's Speech.) His bundle-of-nerves wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), just a gasp away from hysterics, agonizes over whether it is becoming for a royal to eat a hot dog.

When Roosevelt sits Bertie down in his study for late-night drinks, or the bewildered royals spot three of the President's lovers from their bedroom window, or Eleanor stages an authentic Apache tom-tom dance in honor of the British, Hyde Park on Hudson's high-toned gossip is both fascinating and fun. Unfortunately, Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson seem afraid to stage the material as a farce. As a result, the film's sodden pacing lets the air out of its best jokes.

See Hyde Park on Hudson for the always likeable Murray. Or for its smart depiction of the British. But don't get your hopes up for romance.