Remember how last year’s “My Week with Marilyn” spent way too much time on its dullard protagonist and not nearly enough on Marilyn Monroe, the film’s one interesting character? Change the title of “Hyde Park on Hudson” to “My Affair with Franklin,” and you get the same result.
Our uninteresting tour guide this time around is Daisy Stuckley (Laura Linney), a fifth cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray). By the late 1930s, when the film begins, Daisy had gone from being a wealthy woman to one of the president’s poor relations, eking out a living as a caretaker to an elderly aunt (the wonderful Eleanor Bron, sorely underused).
One day, Daisy gets a call to come to FDR’s massive estate to help take his mind off of affairs of state. She looks at his stamp albums and tends to his sinus headaches and goes on long drives with him. During one of these jaunts to the countryside, he puts his hand on hers, then moves their hands to his leg, giving way to the most hilarious cinematic hand-job since “Animal House.”
Except that the hilarity here is unintentional. Director Roger Michell (“Morning Glory,” “Notting Hill”) clearly wanted to communicate the physical nature of Daisy and Franklin’s relationship without turning off the little-old-lady audience, but the result is a sequence that’s simultaneously coy and crude and ridiculous. By the time we get a long shot of the car, with Murray bouncing up and down in the seat, “Hyde Park on Hudson” goes to a loony place from which it never quite recovers.
And while almost no one was clamoring for a sequel to “The King’s Speech,” the best parts of “Hyde Park” revolve around the visit of British royals Albert (Samuel West) and Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), who are trooping up to the Roosevelt estate crown-in-hand to seek support from the U.S. in the impending war with Hitler.
It’s in the scenes with these two — West is perhaps best known in this country as the doomed Leonard Bast in “Howards End,” and Colman’s work spans the tragic “Tyrannosaur” to the hilarious BBC science-show parody “Look Around You” — that the movie comes alive and seems to be about something.
But there’s not enough Bertie and Liz and way too much Daisy, particularly since her clunky narration, courtesy of screenwriter Richard Nelson (who also did the 1993 adaptation of “Ethan Frome”), does little more than belabor the obvious and underscore what a minor role Daisy plays in the goings-on. We get a few tantalizingly brief scenes with Eleanor (Olivia Williams), and some broad hints regarding her “close friendships” with women, but it’s mostly about this distant relative and her disappointment upon discovering that she’s not the only fling that FDR has on the side.
Murray’s portrayal of Roosevelt is neither extraordinary nor embarrassing. Even if this weren’t a year when Daniel Day Lewis’s turn as Abraham Lincoln was thrilling audiences and critics alike, this performance wouldn’t rank among Murray’s most memorable work. Good for him for taking the leap and all, but he lands with neither a thud nor the slightest bit of dazzle.
That segment of the audience that loves period pieces just for the martini shakers and roadsters will love the 1930s detail, and the cinematography by Lol Crawley (“Ballast,” “Four Lions”) is postcard-pretty throughout. A Venn diagram showing those viewers and the ones who want to watch the 32nd president get manually stimulated by his kin, however, may wind up with a pretty narrow overlap.