Depending on how you look at it, Hyde Park on Hudson could read as relevant or redundant, so close is its release to the phenomenon of The King’s Speech. Along with being just as handsomely innocuous as 2010’s Oscar victor, this multi-tonal, 1939-set costume dramedy features Samuel West as the stammering King George VI, who, along with his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), treks to America, seeking support from Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) just months before World War II. The visit was a major milestone, as never before had a British monarch set foot on American soil, but with so many downsized versions of familiar elements (the King’s embarrassed outbursts over failing to finish sentences, for instance), this movie often feels like a King’s Speech spin-off, tangentially cashing in on the hype of a certain flawed hero. There’s indeed something beautiful about the story’s real-life circumstances, wherein two crippled men—one verbally cursed and the other stricken with polio—teamed up to essentially determine the fate of the free world. But that crucial union is one morsel among many at a sardine-can-tight soirée, and the pity is that, amid it all, the proximity to The King’s Speech may be the movie’s boldest move.
The world explored in Hyde Park on Hudson is one of copious juicy secrets, the least tantalizing of which is the lesbianism of Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams), who occupies a separate cottage on the family’s titular New York estate, making furniture with “the sort of women who like each other,” as the royals’ butler puts it. The real dirt, tucked away in an era when even the president’s need for a wheelchair was kept private, concerns FDR’s handful of mistresses, particularly Daisy (Laura Linney), who narrates the movie and also happens to be the big man’s distant cousin.
Written by playwright Roger Nelson, Hyde Park on Hudson is largely derived from Daisy’s diaries about the affair, unearthed after her death in 1991 at the age of 100. In the film, she cozies up to the president while he’s also bedding his secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), a tough pill for the smitten Daisy to swallow, especially after she’s given him cinema’s most PG-rated handjob. The circus of indiscretions is witnessed on the sly by the visiting king and queen, who offer dishy commentary like ardent Bachelor Pad viewers. But, on the whole, the movie vexingly glazes over the highly provocative content, with director Roger Michell preferring to whip the proceedings into as frothy a jaunt as possible.
A native Englishman, Michell ironically keeps the bloodhounds at bay when it comes to sniffing out the Americans’ dirty laundry, yet he’s giddy to amplify Nelson’s hollowly snooty rendering of their highnesses. Played for predictable, dated laughs, the king and queen’s stay on U.S. soil sees them starkly juxtaposed with the easygoing American way, their noses goofily aloft. Conversely, FDR, who’s spared the probing scrutiny his philandering warrants, is painted as the perfect red-blooded converter, leader of a people who’ll collectively tame those stuffy old Brits. There’s tenderness in the president’s heart to hearts with the reluctant king, primarily of the surrogate-father sort, but there’s also plenty of room for him to comment on the U.K.‘s lack of a voting system, and instill in his comrade some good-old-Yankee repose.
The centerpiece of this is a historic picnic that apparently cemented the nations’ bond, and thus served as the first step to victory over Hitler. Franklin’s testy mother, Sara (Elizabeth Wilson), is up in arms about her son’s insistence on serving the royals alcohol, but everyone’s just fine with serving them hot dogs, the ultimate no-frills belly-filler, and, perhaps, a little phallic jab of announcing one’s territory. The very stars-and-stripes menu item becomes an exhausted running joke, with the ever-uppity queen aghast at the notion of such a thing, and the more malleable king whittled down until he’s finally ready to wrap his lips around it.
The moral that Hyde Park on Hudson impresses on its audience is that there’s great value in “special relationships,” be them between world leaders or illicit lovers. It’s a nice way to link the movie’s key events, but it doesn’t change the fact that Nelson and Michell bite off far more than they’re able to chew, resulting in an odd blend of touched-on topics. As the troubled mistress, Linney is as good as her viewers have come to expect, and she’s gifted a pulse-quickening revelation scene that’s better than anything else in the film, but to hear her finally recite Daisy’s acceptance of FDR’s taste for multiple flavors is like listening to a cutesy manifesto from a wife on Big Love.
After drifting away from the series-worthy intrigue of the Roosevelts’ behind-closed-doors activities, and trying instead to be a bubble-light, fish-out-of-water farce, Hyde Park on Hudson strains to eke a Hollywood ending out of Daisy and Franklin’s amour fou, a move that seems both desperate and disingenuous. Mentally juggling this mess of narrative components, one nearly falls numb to the comely cinematography by Lol Crawley and nearly forgets that Murray’s portrayal is supposed to be one with ample Oscar buzz. The actor is just fine as our 32nd president, adopting an accent that warms the natural timbre of his voice, but his work shouldn’t have anyone reaching for their ballots, and at this crowded party, it’s just another pleasantry tossed on the table.