Hard on the heels of the Civil War epic "Lincoln," a very different picture shows a very different president in a very different era. A sort of limited biopic, "Hyde Park on Hudson" concentrates on a few years in the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, focusing mostly on domestic events and the people surrounding him in the late 1930's; strangely, it pays scant attention to the great problems of that difficult and dangerous time.
Based, as the script informs us, on a true story, and narrated by Daisy (Laura Linney), the most important character after FDR himself, the movie takes place in the location of the title, where the president spent summer vacations. A distant cousin of FDR — fifth or sixth, as she says — who also lives in Hyde Park, Daisy cares for her invalid aunt and apparently lives an isolated life, until the president (Bill Murray) summons her to visit one summer day. They chat, or rather she listens to him talk, he shows her his stamp collection, and they begin a friendship.
Over the course of several summers — the movie never aspires to exactness — the relationship with the young woman grows into something more romantic. He takes her whizzing through the countryside in his specially equipped car, shows her a cottage he built for his private times, and eventually, though the script only reveals it in a retrospective reference, they become lovers.
Throughout her relationship with the president and his family, Daisy occupies a position somewhere between the servants and his official entourage; she also becomes a confidante of a man who clearly enjoys the company of a young woman to whom he can speak frankly about matters beyond the burdens of office. She becomes something of a fixture in the Roosevelt household, tolerated and accepted by Eleanor (Olivia Williams), FDR's secretary and mistress Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), and even his horrible mother (Elizabeth Williams).
Everything in the picture coalesces somewhat comically around the state visit of King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), the first English monarchs to set foot in their former colony, in 1939. Their connection to the central events of the narrative and the reason for their trip actually provide the most engaging parts of the movie, combining the film's historical and emotional subjects. At Hyde Park their presence accidentally leads to Daisy's disillusioning discovery that, as Missy puts it, she "shares" the president with her.
Apprehensive about the visit, the king and queen disdain the manners of their American cousins and misunderstand the country itself. They come to America, as the king says, with hat in hand, begging for aid in the war that everyone knows looms on the horizon; as history shows and the picture, alas, does not, in the face of considerable opposition Roosevelt actually exercised enormous cleverness to help Great Britain in the years before the United States entered World War II.
Some of the movie's problems involve its almost exclusive focus on the personal, with little attention to domestic politics, the Great Depression, and the spread of Fascism, matters that must have preoccupied the president in 1939, but barely earn a mention. It also shows Roosevelt as something of a victim of the strong women in his life, from his mother to Eleanor to Missy; no wonder the quiet, passive Daisy appeals to him.
Some of its most pleasant moments show FDR bonding with the insecure, self-doubting young king, plying him with drink, inspiring him with confidence, and providing fatherly advice. He sympathizes with his paralyzing stammer by alluding indirectly to his own handicap as the crippled victim of polio, in some pathetic moments carried by his attendants, never photographed in his wheelchair, always affecting that jaunty posture, and of course, behaving with admirable courage.
A surprising choice to play Roosevelt, Bill Murray performs competently, if not brilliantly, imitating all the gestures and mannerisms shown in all the familiar photographs, documentary films, and newsreel footage. He conveys some of FDR's charm and good humor, but perhaps a result of the director's conception, none of the commanding presence of the man who led the nation through the Great Depression and later, World War II, one of the giants of the 20th century.