Whether one of the tales being told in Hyde Park on Hudson - the secret love affair between the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret "Daisy" Suckley over his Summer residences at his mother's Hyde Park estate - is true or tall is beside the point. What really matters is that veteran British director Roger Michell finds, somewhere in the middle of a rather muddled piece of "heritage cinema", a sense of melancholy and wonder, an outside, benevolent gaze that would not necessarily be expected. That sense is found in the way that Daisy (Laura Linney) looks onto the comings and goings at the serene rural setting of Hyde Park with the distance of someone who is not part of it and who enjoys keeping that distance, both amazed at and uncomprehending of it all.
In truth, that sense of the "small history" taking place while the "Greater History" is being made is a lot more interesting than either Bill Murray's sly performance as Roosevelt (a departure if ever there was one for an actor who's been pretty much typecast throughout) or the film's dovetailing with pre-WWII history in the 1939 visit of British King George VI to the US to raise support for the war to come. Richard Nelson's script sways uncertainly between culture-clash comedy, with the highly insecure King and Queen Elizabeth (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) uncomprehending of American customs, and soft romantic reverie as Daisy enjoys her interludes with the famously womanizing polio-afflicted president. Yet neither of these plot strands ever goes much of anywhere; instead, what sticks are the breezy car drives Daisy and Roosevelt take, her moments walking through the woods or through the house, her standing outside Hyde Park as dignitaries come in and out, laughter or music echoes, the sense of a quietly content life lived on the margins of the world and pleasurably so.
That Ms. Linney's lovely, self-effacing performance should be the conduit for this is hardly unexpected; neither is it unexpected that nearly everything else in Hyde Park on Hudson sticks to the well-groomed playbook of period drama that the British know how to do with their eyes closed, even though Mr. Michell's enlivening of it with steadycam or handheld work during the fretting run-up to the royal visit throws a few well-mannered spanners in it. What is startling is the film's inability to actually choose which of its parallel plots it prefers to develop and its general stodginess, presented with a perfunctory "yes-this'll-do" professionalism. And yet, that kernel of quiet comfort hidden stage right in Ms. Linney is more than enough to warrant Hyde Park on Hudson a clear-eyed look.
Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Olivia Williams
Director: Roger Michell
Screenplay: Richard Nelson
Cinematography: Lol Crawley (colour, widescreen)
Music: Jeremy Sams
Designer: Simon Bowles
Costumes: Dinah Collin
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Producers: Kevin Loader, Mr. Michell, David Aukin (Focus Features, Filmfour, Free Range Film, Daybreak Pictures)
USA/United Kingdom, 2012, 94 minutes
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, June 6th 2013