You may remember King George VI, if not from history than from the Oscar-anointed Best Picture of 2010, The King’s Speech. He’s the charming, low-key fellow (Colin Firth) who inherits the throne quite reluctantly after his brother abdicates for love, and must overcome his lifelong stammer in order to deliver an address as England declares war on Germany at the outset of WWII. Hyde Park on Hudson functions as a sort of unofficial prequel to that film, with George VI (Samuel West) and his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) visiting America and, specifically, President Franklin Roosevelt’s country home in semi-upstate New York, where they seek U.S. support for the upcoming war. The point of view here is largely American — sometimes with Franklin (Bill Murray) and Eleanor (Olivia Williams, making a Rushmore reunion with Murray), narrated by Roosevelt’s cousin and, er, companion, Daisy (Laura Linney). It’s The King’s Speech: Summer Super-Special! It’s probably not fair to reduce Hyde Park on Hudson to an Oscar-season also-ran cash-in (or any other hyphenated dismissals) when it reduces itself just fine on its own meager terms. It does not require the existence of another movie to fail.
A comedy of manners among world leaders holds some promise, which the movie briefly fulfills when Roosevelt and George sit down to talk. Murray is not known as an impressionist, but the fun of his performance comes from the way his wily oddball persona meets FDR halfway. The dialogue between the President and the King has a low-key, sometimes wry sense of caution and that allows you to feel like you are eavesdropping on the idiosyncrasies of important and interesting people.
These thoughts don’t last, not least because the scenes of world leaders forging a tentative bond comprise perhaps 15 or 20 minutes out of the movie’s slim yet fairly torturous 95. The movie opens with endless and shockingly inane narration from Daisy, a distant relative of Roosevelt’s who is summoned to his estate. They become friends, and take drives together in the country. In her narration, she says things like: “From then on, I knew we would not only be cousins, but the best of friends.” And she says things like that after giving the President a handjob. If there is an ironic, knowing, or — gulp — genuinely wistful way of approaching this situation, the movie does not find it; instead, it goes for a weird, unappealing combination of cutesy and smutty.
Poor Linney, playing this ridiculous character, comes across as a naive teenager in the body of a fortyish woman, and I’m not sure if director Roger Michell or screenwriter Richard Nelson give full consideration to how sad this would be — or, more importantly how interesting it would be, which is to say not very, apart from a touch of car-wreck fascination. But it almost doesn’t matter; the movie doesn’t have much better luck with the traditionally interesting stuff, outside of some stray conversations. About halfway through, Daisy recedes for a time — as she must, unless the filmmakers wished to further insinuate her into historical events she probably had very little to do with in real life. What remains is culture-clash conflict over whether the Americans are trying to humiliate the English by throwing them a less-than-formal picnic, resolved with all of the richness and depth you might expect from a mid-level sitcom. Historical accords become fodder for mildly wacky misunderstandings.
Roger Michell has made films both tough (Changing Lanes; Enduring Love) and gentle (Notting Hill; Venus); none, regardless of quality, serve as adequate preparation for this feature-length miscalculation. By the end, despite the talented cast, Hyde Park on Hudson plays like a deranged and lopsided parody of what the historitainment audience wants out of their genteel, awards-bait movies.