The fundamental problem with Hyde Park on Hudson is that it promises so many interesting characters and so many spirited performances, and then focuses its attention on the dullest one.
That’s not a reflection on Laura Linney’s performance as Margaret Suckley either; rather she has nothing to work with. When, early in the film, she’s summoned to Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray)’s New York retreat, the two embark on countless drives through the country. Are they happy? Content? Angry?
There’s image after image of them driving, accompanied by Linney’s tiresome jabbering narration, and then the tone takes a surreal detour when Frankie pulls over and wordlessly asks for some full service. Any other woman would rightly get the hell out of town, but as the meandering voiceover informs us, it draws the them closer. O-kay.
From there, things shift to the nearing arrival of King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). And in case you’ve forgotten, they’re the same folks from The King’s Speech. WWII looms over Europe, and England seeks the support of America. No British monarch had ever before visited the U.S., as we’re continuously reminded, but that that fact is repeated seems to be the bulk of its import, much like saying, “No British monarch had ever eaten a big sandwich before,” over and over again.
Eleanor (Olivia Williams) makes a contemptuous stink at the notion of royalty while Sara (Elizabeth Wilson), Frankie’s mom, reminds everyone of the proper way to address the royal couple. There’s a spark to this idea but it never ignites. Following around one of Frankie’s mistresses as she shies away from the staff while the Royal Family and the First Family are having dinner is a cardinal sin, and yet, when we finally get to sit down with Frankie and George, their conversation amounts to little more than a cheap pep talk and heavy drinking.
The rest of the film fares about as well. Suckley is shoved to the background for a while and the big plot point becomes whether or not the King will eat hot dogs on the picnic lunch. Apparently hot dogs are beneath royalty or whatever. It’s not funny the first time it’s brought up and doesn’t get any better the next 30 or so. And then it’s back to Suckley, who has a revelation that has already been made clear to everyone else including but not limited to Hitler, Stalin, and Rosemary Kennedy, though, to be fair, she would not have been lobotomized at this time. It’s neither interesting nor especially important, as Suckley’s story isn’t compelling, and while the subplot has more intrigue, it functions as a distraction. Maybe this was inevitable, as Suckley doesn’t have much of a story to tell, at least she doesn’t have one that can compete with World War II.
With some clever dialogue, it could have been one of the year’s best films. The look and cast are all there; in fact, the performances almost make up for the lackluster script. I feel nasty writing it, but Murray (who is an inspired casting choice) and Williams (perhaps even more inspired) are too good for this film. Linney, for that matter, is too good for this film. But this is something built on wit and charm, both of which are lacking. As a romance, it’s creepy, as a comedy, it’s not funny, and as history, I can only hope it becomes it. Fast.