One of the first scenes in Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson features Laura Linney’s Daisy giving Bill Murray’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s a hand-job in the seat of his modified car, away from the prying eyes of security and, perhaps more importantly, his wife Eleanor. Its awkward and humorous, yet perfectly sets the scene for an FDR little know about, an affable man whose dalliances with multiple women are overlooked due to a looming war, a crippling disease, and a troubled marriage. So begins a witty and heartfelt biopic that prefers to focus on FDR the human being rather than FDR the President.
And it mostly works, despite coming dangerously close to crumbling under the weight of its jumbled nature. Hyde Park on Hudson takes place during the summer of 1939 at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (Bill Murray) estate in Hyde Park, New York. His legs ravaged by polio and the threat of World War 2 looming on the horizon, the president begins a relationship with his distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney) as his cabinet, Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and mother (Elizabeth Wilson) prepare for the arrival of King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). Tensions are high, and up until this point, no British monarch had visited the United States. With their arrival FDR seeks to bridge the tumultuous gap between the two countries by providing American help to the British during the forthcoming war.
Serving as the film’s narrator, Daisy provides context for her growing relationship with FDR throughout most of the film. Her prominence wanes, however, with the arrival of the King and Queen, prompting a shift in the film’s narrative. From here on out the film becomes less about Daisy and FDR and more about his relationship with monarchs, while Linney’s character makes sporadic appearances to help the story surrounding their relationship limp along. By this point West and Colman have stolen the show, with Linney’s character doing little more than interrupting the momentum the film gained a quarter of the way through with the monarchs’ arrival. The reticence that surrounds their visit provides a delightful fish-out-of-water set-up, with many of the film’s more grounded and light-hearted moments coming in their discussions over whether or not they’re being subtly insulted and how the Americans are supposed to act around them.
Samuel West’s portrayal of the stuttering and seemingly unqualified king provides a number of the film’s emotional and downright hilarious moments, seen particularly in his scenes with Olivia Colman, whose portrayal as a strong yet confused Queen Elizabeth, is dichotomous to her husband’s desire for acceptance. She’s uptight and serious, while George, known affectionately as Bertie, prefers to roll with the punches, albeit with an air of concern over the people’s opinion of his role as King.
Enter FDR, who serves as a father figure to the young and naive royal with an egregious stutter yet engaging in banter that paints a picture of the President as a charismatic and witty man despite a life riddled with obstacles. Bill Murray is positively sublime, instilling in the character the sense of humor we’ve come to expect from a Murray role while still paying respect to the character. Laura Linney, however, plays the role of the naive but good-hearted Daisy well enough, but it’s certainly nothing to write home about. She’s given neither enough screen time nor true development to be little more than filler for when FDR, King George, and the Queen aren’t on screen.
Hyde Park on Hudson is less a film about the story and more one about the characters. Its wonderful performances, particularly that of Murray who, at times, becomes so lost in the character you’re forgetting it’s actually Bill Murray, make it an enjoyable and humorous romp despite its bric-a-brac construction and seemingly underdeveloped lead.