It's dispiriting that a film about the romantic life of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who cultivated a small coterie of mistresses, should exhibit so little interest in what so engaged its hero: the women's individual hearts and minds. Instead, Hyde Park on Hudson quickly introduces us (and FDR) to the president's distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney) and then races forward to a sudden hookup that takes a firm stance on the question of whether our polio-stricken 32nd president could take a firm stance. After that, Daisy, our narrator and ostensibly the movie's center, is left to haunt the edges of the film — and the president's life.
That's not the worst life to haunt, considering this FDR is played by Bill Murray, supreme in his rumpled charisma. After years of playing against his louche appeal, Murray is at last unleashing it again. The feeling is something like throwing open the windows after a long winter — we'd all but forgotten the radiance of his charms. His performance has none of that hauling-truth-down-from-the-mountain intensity of Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln. Instead, this is one beloved man of preternatural self-possession deploying everything likable within himself in order to embody another.
For stretches of the film, Murray is enough to recommend Hyde Park on Hudson, especially as he toys with his house guests, England's King George (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), characters who are to each December's award-season movies what inflatable Snoopys and Spider-Men are to November's Thanksgiving parades. The royals want Roosevelt to pledge aid to England in the coming war; Roosevelt wants to put on paternal airs and talk man-to-man to a king. He even manages to inspire in the stammering George sufficient spine to tell his queen to quit talking so bloody much. (This is presented as a good thing.)
And Daisy — well, maybe we'll discover what she wants in some DVD extras, as it's certainly not in the movie. We do see her hang about the house with the help while smiling timorously just outside great dinners and world-changing conferences, ready to pop into a scene if the president or the filmmakers happen to think of her. There's a children's book, Ben and Me, narrated by a mouse who lived in Ben Franklin's pocket; Hyde Park's mouse doles out happy endings.
The big sex scene occurs before the picture has even really started. Daisy and FDR have met, talked awkwardly over a stamp collection and bounced over some meadows in the president's motorcar, one specially designed for a man robbed of the use of his legs. The president parks in a gorgeous field of wildflowers, fiddles with the radio until he finds "Moonlight Serenade," and then places Daisy's hand in his lap. We've not heard one word about Eleanor yet, and we've witnessed no singular moment of connection between these two. Still, lickety-split, we're treated to FDR's Swing-Time Hand Job Hour. In the afterglow, the music swells like Daisy has just taken her first ride on Seabiscuit.
From there, she has little to do but moon about until the third act, when she learns — spoiler for the movie, for country music and for men in general — that a cheater always has more cheating in him. Director Roger Michell quickly establishes the Roosevelts' domestic setup. Independent Eleanor (the excellent Olivia Williams) is amused by her husband's trysts but is otherwise occupied. Rather than explore the delicate ins and outs of this aristocratic polyamory, Hyde Park on Hudson just trots out its royal Brits, a pair of light-comedy worrywarts who get some laughs by going sour-faced at the libertine Americans.
In films like You Can Count on Me and The Savages, Linney has proved herself among the greatest of movie actors, especially as strong-willed types desperate to hold their lives together. In the recent, under-seen The Details — still available on demand — she kicks up first-rate comedy as a cat-obsessed neighbor who becomes a daft seductress. But here, she's given little to play save excitement at the great man's attentions and then anger that they aren't exclusive to her.
Questions that go unaddressed: What does she hope for from her affair with Roosevelt? What else has she considered dedicating her life to? When alone, what do these two actually talk about? Does he have any interest in the words that come out of her mouth? Have they arrived at a method for him to reciprocate her sexual favors? The subplot about Eleanor wanting to feed hot dogs to the royals and then the scene of Daisy, at FDR's behest, actually glazing the king's curved and lengthy frankfurter with mustard: Surely that was meant as satire of the notion that there is nothing more noble than the manipulation of great men's meat?
Perhaps the filmmakers considered Murray's FDR to be explanation enough. He is a marvel, as is the beauty marshaled up by director of photography Lol Crowley. Like many movies today, this one offers sights that, decades ago, would have counted among the grandest in the history of film. In this case, those backfield wildflowers qualify: Sitting among them, beside that rakish four-termer, who among us could resist unzipping the executive branch?