Hyde Park on Hudson is an amiable but torpid period drama. It’s bound to be compared to The King’s Speech given that the stuttering monarch King George VI (engagingly played by Samuel West) is back on screen and the film is set at around the same time as the Colin Firth Oscar-winner.
Bill Murray exorcises memories of his Caddyshack beginnings for good with his very finely judged performance as President Franklin D Roosevelt. However, there is no real urgency to a film in which the main drama is whether King George will eat a hot dog or not.
The setting is upstate New York 1939, on the eve of the second World War. King George and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) have come across the Atlantic for a first meeting with Roosevelt.
They’re desperate to curry favour with him and to persuade the US to become their allies against the Nazis. However, they feel utterly out of place in the New World.
Queen Elizabeth, in particular, is convinced that the Americans are mocking them. The story is told from the perspective of FDR’s distant cousin Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), a prim and naive woman who is summoned by Roosevelt to become his companion – and eventually his lover.
One of the nagging irritations about Richard Nelson’s screenplay is that we are seemingly being given Margaret’s point of view (she even has some voice-over narration) and yet the film is full of moments that she can have known nothing about – for example, bedroom scenes between George and Elizabeth. (The explanation that the walls at FDR’s country retreat are very thin hardly passes muster.)
Margaret is the innocent outsider, trying to understand what is happening in the complex and secretive world of FDR and his family. She takes a long time to work out the power relations between Roosevelt and his formidable mother (Elizabeth Wilson), who scolds him for drinking, and his equally strong-willed wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams.)
Murray excels as the polio-stricken but worldly-wise us President. For all his own flaws (his womanising and drinking), he has an acute understanding of the behaviour and motivations of others. Hyde Park on Hudson is very prettily shot and boasts top-notch production and costume design.
Its cast is superb. That, though, can’t atone for an anaemic plot in which nothing much seems to be at stake.