Usually, calling an actress “radiant” is a euphemism for saying that she’s aging but still beautiful. Laura Linney transcends euphemism: She’s radiant in the sense of being luminous and magnetic, someone you enjoy watching. Linney brings that quality to “Hyde Park on Hudson” in spades, and so does Bill Murray.
Murray plays President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Linney his 6th cousin, Daisy Suckley. The film presumes an affair took place between them, based on a relationship that they renewed in 1922 and which might (or might not) have been sexual in nature. Linney narrates the story of Daisy’s feelings for FDR, and the movie recounts how she was a frequent guest at his estate in upstate New York, where the president would retreat to pore over his stamp collection.
Against this romantic, if anodyne, backdrop, foreign dignitaries drop into the picture: The film centers around a 1939 state visit by King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman), the first British monarchs to visit the United States. They’re looking for support in the coming war against the Nazis. From the start, George and Elizabeth worry that FDR (and America in general) is waging a war of its own on their regal dignity: Is the plan to feed the royals hot dogs at a picnic nothing more than an attempt to subject them to mockery? It’s a subject that gnaws and worries the royals.
There’s plenty of this sort of wool gathering going on, and the film’s dramatic tension is sporadic at best. But from the standpoint of production design and cinematography, this is a film that never bores: It’s gorgeous to look at. Linney and Murray turn in splendid performances, and things are spiced up and goosed along by more energetic characters like Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams), FDR’s mother (Elizabeth Wilson), and FDR’s secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), who seems to regard Daisy with more than a mote of jealousy. For her part, Daisy is destined to have cause for her own spasms of jealous rage.
Is this a love story? A political tale gussied up with fine clothing and fancy plates? An odd family drama (or comedy) that just happens to include a United States president? The story is none too sure of its own nature, but in purely cinematic terms this is a rather magnificent picture. If the story itself didn’t have such fascinating roots (Daisy’s diaries and a cache of letters were discovered after she died in 1991), this film would never have been made. In execution, Hyde Park on Hudson is less a peek behind the curtains into private, privileged lives than a marble cake of mild titillation and mild historical interest. It’s civilized enough for high tea.