HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is an interesting rather than a compelling film. Based on the recently discovered diaries of Daisy Stuckley, it tells the behind-the-scenes tale of her affair with Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray), her fourth for fifth cousin depending on how itís counted, during the tumultuous summer of 1939. The Great Depression is in full swing, war is looming in Europe, and King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) of England are coming for a semi-formal visit that they hope will garner a promise from the United States to help them when that war ceases to loom and starts to shoot.
The luminous Laura Linney plays Daisy, a shy but not retiring lady of a certain age residing with her aunt near the eponymous Roosevelt country estate. Summoned there by FDRís domineering mother, Sarah (Elizabeth Wilson), to take Franklinís mind off the troublesome matters of state, Daisy and the President take a shine to one another, and on one of their many languorous drives through the bucolic countryside, the President, without romance, or even verbalization, takes their relationship to the next level. Daisy is dewy-eyed, and Franklinís innate charm and natural gift for politics of all kinds makes for a lovely juxtaposition with her instinctive naivetť about what her position really is. That all changes during the momentous 4th of July weekend when the royals come to visit.
Using tropes and idioms better suited to a hagiography than an trenchant exposť of what life was really like behind the scenes undercuts the truly delicious pleasures of watching the ongoing battles between Franklin, his dragon of a mother, and his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Wilde, far too pretty for the role even with prosthetic teeth), and the far more interesting, almost convivial, relationship FDR had with his First Lady, who made her home elsewhere with women who, as a beleaguered British attachť puts it, like one another. As satire, though, it needs more bite. As history, itís a tad too flip.
The royals, though, given similar but sharper treatment, come in for their own unveiling in the best part of the film. Far from the witty, adoring couple of THE KINGíS SPEECH. Sheís a brittle, dour woman with little humor and a penchant for feeling insulted. Heís sweet, insecure, and not a little henpecked as the weekend progresses and the political implications of being served hot dogs by his host are parsed for him until heís thrown into a tizzy of truly regal proportions.
As a romance, it needs more punch, and not the one Daisy gets metaphorically when thrown into situations about which she has no frame of reference. Murray is delightful with the right patrician panache coupled with an effortless, even endearing, talent for politics. When the time comes for him to have the President-to-King chat, itís Murrayís charisma that makes the scene work as FDR tries with avuncular charm to give the King some spine.
Much is made throughout the film of people only wanting to see what they want to see, a point brought home by the press of this simpler time never taking a photo of FDR in his wheelchair or otherwise being inconvenienced by the partial paralysis of his legs sustained by a bout of polio. Itís an intriguing theme, and another aspect of the film undercut by those tropes and idioms and the trivializing narration Linney does as Daisy. HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is a lushly produced, finely observed, and wonderfully acted film that should have been much better, but might just be good enough to overlook its lapses and let the audience see just what it wants to see.