Dir. Roger Michell
(2012, R, 95 minutes)

Hyde Park on Hudson is two screenplays fighting for space in one movie. One is a romantic melodrama about an extramarital affair between President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and his distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney). The other is a gently comic story about a visit from Great Britain’s King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), whose trip to America is more than just diplomacy: Britain is on the brink of entering World War II and in need of American help. The two stories are not equally successful and don’t feel like they belong together.

The less compelling is Roosevelt’s affair, which at first seems as though it will be the central storyline; Daisy is the first character we meet, and she delivers voice-over narration. This suggests the story will be told from her point of view, so it’s strange later on when the story shifts focus to scenes she is not privy to.

Daisy feels like an outsider amidst the political intrigue that surrounds her, and the main problem is that as a character in her own story she feels too much like a hanger-on, whose problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The King and Queen of England fear for their nation; Daisy’s romantic dilemma seems inconsequential by comparison.

The royal visit is the stronger story. We’ve met this couple on-screen recently: played by Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech. I actually prefer the versions played by West and Colman in this film. The King’s Speech was a more conventional hero narrative, and Firth, despite his character’s stutter, always had a regal presence. In contrast, West’s George VI has an everyman vulnerability; I believed him more as a man unsure of his fitness to wear the crown.

Probably my favorite scene is between George and Roosevelt, who discuss their limitations – George’s stutter and Roosevelt’s paralysis from polio – and also how to best manage public perception. Roosevelt, expert at tailoring his image, shares his wisdom, and George comes away chuffed, like a schoolboy who has brought home good marks. Underneath his stiff upper lip is a man seeking validation and finding it from an unlikely source.

At one point, diplomatic relations come down to a decision about hot dogs at a picnic, discussions of which both are absurdly funny and carry an additional subtext. Are the Americans making fun of them, the royals wonder? Are they rooting against the British in the war? For something so small, the implications are great.

Periodically, Linney returns as lovestruck Daisy, to look at FDR’s stamps and wonder if he really cares about her. If only she knew that for those in the next room the world is at stake.

 

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