Nicola Cove / Focus Features

Presidential philandering is suggested in "Hyde Park on Hudson," starring Laura Linney and Bill Murray.

Movie review: Affairs of state provide thin plot for 'Hudson'

Published: Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 20TICKET

Peering into famous bedrooms is a pastime of biographers and filmmakers alike, and this season offers several opportunities for the nosily inclined. Alfred Hitchcock, as well as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, have recently received the keyhole treatment; even Abraham Lincoln helps loosen Mary's corset in the otherwise buttoned-up "Lincoln."

And in "Hyde Park on Hudson," filmgoers can watch some presidential pleasuring, courtesy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and his obliging cousin Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney).

It's the 1930s, and Franklin has taken to driving Daisy around the countryside in a specially modified car that he can operate using only his hands. Daisy will soon have something to occupy her hands because, after waving away his security detail, Franklin stops the car in a field of purple blooms. It's a pretty scene, framed by the bright sky and soft, green hills.

He takes Daisy's hand and places it on one of his legs, but just when you think you are about to see more of the 32nd president of the United States – and Murray – than you would like, the British director Roger Michell cuts to a long shot of them in the car. The violins surge, the flowers bob, and, alas, so does the president.

Roosevelt was one of the towering figures of the 20th century, but he and his accomplishments scarcely register in this amorphous, bafflingly aimless movie. The story hinges, increasingly to its detriment, on Daisy, a distant cousin to Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor (an amusing Olivia Williams, unconvincingly dowdied).

In 1922 the real Suckley was plucked from her humdrum life to keep Roosevelt company when he visited his mother's home in Hyde Park, which he did regularly. Suckley remained at his side until he died. A cache of papers found after her death in 1991 indicates that they had, at the least, a sustained flirtation; the movie suggests that these cousins did more than kiss, to which you may shrug and say, "So what?"

The movie, written by the playwright Richard Nelson, doesn't have an answer. Daisy's relationship with Franklin provides the almost somnolent way into the story, but it soon becomes part of the background noise for a visit from the king and queen of England (the lively, nicely matched Samuel West and Olivia Colman). The visit was part of a larger tour – the king was the first British monarch to enter the United States – that was intended to stir up support for Britain on the eve of war in the face of recalcitrant U.S. isolationism.

It was big news, splashed across national headlines, as was Eleanor Roosevelt's plan to serve the royals hot dogs, a calculated choice intended to help humanize the monarchs for the U.S. public. (The wiener stratagem worked.)

Michell has fun with the royal visit, and there's an absorbing, intimate scene between the president and the king that could be a coda to "The King's Speech," the 2010 film about his relationship with his speech therapist. (You have to wonder if Daisy was added in a bid to better distinguish this movie from "The King's Speech.")

Saddled with a role that groans with historical weight, yet is also terribly underwritten and underconceptualized, Murray's Franklin rarely comes to palpable life before this encounter. The actor strikes familiar poses, the famous cigarette jauntily thrusting.

Yet because the movie often assumes Daisy's point of view (she also narrates), his character remains vague, remote, more of a place holder among the rest of the period-correct production design.

Suckley and Roosevelt's relationship has added layers to the historical record, yet it's mainly important for what it says about him. That sounds cruel, but the film does nothing to right that impression. Did she feel empowered by her access? Turned on? Too bad no one here asks.


HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

★ ★

Cast: Laura Linney, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Samuel West

Director: Roger Michell

95 minutes

Rated R (brief sexuality)

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Read more articles by Manohla Dargis



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