In the early summer of 1939, while the world hovers on the cusp of global war, Hyde Park on Hudson teeters on the brink of drawing-room comedy. The rooms are in Franklin Roosevelt’s rambling mansion, where he and the visiting George VI, the afflicted American president and the stuttering British king, romp about in search of bright humour crossed with light romance. To their credit, and our amusement, they find it. So be advised. The politics here are too thin to credit, but the panache is thick and glossy and builds in the end to a literal picnic, where hot dogs are served along with a pressing question: Will His Royal Highness actually stoop to conquer that common dog, mustard and all? The suspense mounts.
Our narrative guide through history’s frolic is Daisy (Laura Linney) who, beginning as FDR’s “fifth or sixth cousin,” wastes no time advancing her status to “kissing” and way beyond. Demure, almost mousey in her reticence, she’s summoned to the Hyde Park estate by its owner, the President’s mother, with this clarion call to duty: “He needs someone to take his mind off his work.” A few frames and one radio address later, Franklin is whisking her down country roads in his hand-controlled car. At the top of a scenic hill, with the flowers in bloom, he parks, leans back, and silently invites her hand to take a little control, not to mention his mind off his work. She succeeds; he’s relieved.
That racy bit of business, with its comic undertow, shouldn’t work but does. Why? Two words: Bill Murray. In donning FDR’s iconic mantle, he lacks the accent and the girth but, with that constant cigarette fixed in its silver holder, Murray is ideal for this narrower portrait in Richard Nelson’s script: the charming if quirky lord of the manor, and the becalmed centre of a domestic storm. While mistresses both freshly minted and long-standing vie for his attention, while mommy hectors him about his martini intake and wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) mixes her sardonic wit with her earnest liberalism, the Prez remains unflappable. And Murray, whether flying in that car or pinioned in a wheelchair, is unflappability personified – such a knowing face with its sly tincture of irony.
He gets even better when the guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner plot kicks in. King Bertie (Samuel West) and Queen Liz (Olivia Colman) are paying a royal visit, ostensibly to drum up American support for the coming war but really, under Roger Michell’s theatrical direction, to occupy the drawing room and swell the comedy. To that end, West and Colman play the regal pair with a delightfully callow touch. Beneath the crown, they’re both young and nervous and inherently provincial, awkward strangers in a strange land. It’s a cute reversal of the cliché – here the Brits are the hicks in King Franklin’s court – and, as the night grows late under a full moon, we watch them gawking from their bedroom window at the goings-on below, puzzling out the amorous pecking order among wife and mistresses, then worrying about those damn hot dogs (emphasis on the last syllable) slated for the next day’s lunch. Wonders the Queen: “Are they trying to make fun of us?”
Nope, just trying to make fun. The one mildly serious note occurs in an extended post-dinner meeting, where Bertie and FDR retreat to the study to discuss the visit’s overriding purpose. Yet here too the substance of their emerging “special relationship” gets short shrift. Instead, the sequence unfolds as a playful exercise in pop psychology and another reversal of stereotypes – the experienced Yank is the father-figure to the innocent Brit. The scene is hokum as a politics lesson but magic as an acting clinic, with West and Murray leading their characters through a delicate, self-mocking and emotionally transparent dance of afflictions – the one’s “goddamn stutter” and the other’s “goddamn polio” in a gentle embrace.
As for Daisy, her inflated role is problematic. Although at the periphery of the action, the woman stands at the centre of the film, doubling as the compromised love interest and our voice-over narrator. But even Linney can’t bring her to life. Too often, she’s just alone and palely loitering, marginalia struggling under the weight of an unjustified prominence.
Happily, in that hot-dog climax at the picnic, the picture returns to yuk-yuks central and to its truest roots. Essentially, Hyde Park on Hudson is a Shakespearean revel. It’s A Midsummer Night’sDream, a green country comedy ruled by love’s common touch and far removed from the grey cities, where the stockpiled violence abides by a different set of rules and the history play will soon be written.