Hyde Park on Hudson, a light historical period piece from director Roger Michel (Notting Hill), is an apparently unintentional companion piece to 2010 Oscar winner The King's Speech, even if it now seems very unlikely to garner the same kind of industry and even critical approval.
The film portrays Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray) over the course of a long weekend at a family home in upstate New York, where he hosts the new English monarch, King George VI (Samuel West) and enters into an illicit relationship with Daisy (Laura Linney), his spinster fifth cousin.
Like The King's Speech, Hyde Park on Hudson is a middleweight chamber dramedy heavily dependent on a lead performance that rises above its station, and Murray is good here in the moments where he has some decent material. This is more often in his ostensible "B" plot scenes with West than in his scenes with Linney.
The film peaks when Roosevelt and George break through diplomatic decorum during a late-night meeting in the president's study. Here, Murray enacts a perilous solo journey across the room, showing the strength and resourcefulness of the disabled president, and then gives some wise, avuncular advice to the worried new king. West, a generally unknown British character actor, gives one of the year's most underrecognized supporting turns.
But if Hyde Park on Hudson is better than advertised when it shows FDR on the job, it suffers in putting its primary focus elsewhere. From Gone With the Wind to Casablanca to Titanic, it's been Hollywood style to subsume the world-historic into the romantic and personal. But, here, that's a big mistake, and the depiction of the relationship between Roosevelt and Daisy is an uncomfortable mix of prim and prurient. Early on, when Daisy, ahem, manually stimulates him in a car, amid a sea of wildflowers, with period music on the radio and a cigarette in his hand, it's maybe the most awkward scene of the year — for performers and viewers alike. ("I knew then that we were not just fifth cousins, but very good friends," Daisy says in a howler of a voiceover.)
Hyde Park on Hudson seems to think it's doing the good work of humanizing a historical figure, but it has the misfortune of sharing theaters with Steven Spielberg's extraordinary Lincoln, which humanizes an iconic president without shortchanging what actually made him great.
Hyde Park on Hudson
Opening Friday, January 4th, Ridgeway Four