Bill Murray is a man of many talents who has lately struggled to find the right outlet for them. The latest example, “Hyde Park on Hudson,” finds Murray in a tame, mannered costume drama delivering his best FDR impression. The actor’s pathos and deadpan skills are buried in the material, which also suffers from a continuous lack of inspiration. It’s high-minded entertainment with low ambition.
Taking cues from playwright Richard Nelson’s screenplay, director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) follows a curious tangent of FDR’s presidency, when during the summer of 1939 the president left the White House to spend time at his family home in upstate New York. While there, he invites the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Coleman) to pay him a visit to discuss Britain’s mounting pressure to join the war against Germany. The meeting arrives around the movie’s midpoint and contains ample entertainment value outside of the context of the story surrounding it.
Before that happens, however, FDR forms a different sort of special relationship — with his neighbor, the shy and gullible Daisy (Laura Linney), also the movie’s narrator. Taking Daisy on romantic trips through the town’s natural splendor, FDR quickly romances Daisy and even assures her that he’ll leave wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and move into a home with Daisy when his presidency is complete. Naturally, FDR’s charm hides his hogwash, a lesson that Daisy learns the hard way once his pattern of marital indiscretions becomes clear.
Watchable but never particularly engaging, “Hyde Park on Hudson” progresses with its pedestrian scenario by relying on its actors to carry it along. Unfortunately, both leads deliver muted, unremarkable performances on the level of the material. Murray’s delivery is particularly tiresome: His faux southern accent comes and goes, and despite a number of amusing asides his face often freezes into a typically restrained Murray expression that distracts from the character.
Linney bests her fellow actor with a functionally sad, restrained turn, although in spite of her narration she’s largely marginalized by the plot. Elizabeth Marvel, in a supporting role as FDR’s knowing secretary Missy, stands out for her fierce, icy approach to wrangling the president’s quixotic nature. But the real star is cinematographer Lol Crawley (“Ballast”), whose advanced color palette alternates between bright imagery and deep shadows to convey both the serenity of the countryside and the secrets lurking within it. Unfortunately, the story can’t keep pace.
Only once the King and Queen make their awkward entrance does “Hyde Park on Hudson” gain some enjoyable qualities. During a prolonged meeting between the president and the king, the duo bonds over handicaps (FDR can’t walk and the king stutters) and Nelson’s script strikes a complex note pitched between comedy and political intrigue. Unfortunately, the sequence works so well that it makes the rest of the movie appear shallow and generally useless by comparison, and when Daisy regains her prominent role “Hyde Park on Hudson” sinks back to its tedious foundation.
While easily comparable to “The King’s Speech” for taking place during the same period and filling in a gap in that movie’s timeline, “Hyde Park on Hudson” lacks the sort of conflicted protagonist that gave the earlier movie a semblance of high stakes. Despite his larger-than-life presence, FDR comes across as a blithe, untroubled man whose true depth is either obscured by his stealthy mannerisms or simply not contained in the screenplay. The story comes across like a quest to turn history into entertainment, and as a result it lacks any lasting value. “I helped him forget the world,” Daisy tells us at one point, but in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” she also helps the movie lose its way.
Criticwire grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? At the Telluride Film Festival where it had its world premiere, “Hyde Park” received mixed reviews but scored accolades for its performances. While it next stops at Toronto and NYFF, Focus Features will release the film later this year and likely push hard for Murray and Linney during awards season. As a star-studded period drama pitched as entertainment, it could perform well among older audiences.