The casting might sound weird at first. But Murray's subtly charming presence ends up being one of the stronger elements of the otherwise lightweight romance "Hyde Park on Hudson," which depicts one of the most revered United States presidents with all the substance and insight of a lukewarm cup of tea.
"Notting Hill" director Roger Michell, working from a script by Richard Nelson, focuses on a brief period in the secret affair between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his fifth cousin, Margaret Suckley - or "Daisy" as she was known. Unflaggingly loyal, earnest and supportive, she's also mousy, quiet and a total bore - a huge waste of the versatile and vibrant talents of Laura Linney.
The fact that Linney provides wall-to-wall voiceover doesn't add much, as she's stuck spelling out what should be pretty obvious on screen ("He said I helped him forget the weight of the world," for example.) Much of their relationship appears gentle and tame, full of long afternoons spent looking at stamps or driving through the countryside in a car designed specifically for the polio-stricken president. About 20 minutes in, he tells her: "I always miss you," but we're not there yet emotionally, and we never get there.
We also don't get much of a sense of Roosevelt in terms of his power or popularity; "Lincoln," this is not. Instead, it's all rather cozy and insular amid the rolling hills and tasteful period trappings. Murray could just be playing a funny older gentleman in a wheelchair who likes his cigarettes and martinis. But then there is one moment that's tonally off in which Daisy, um, pleasures the president in the front seat during one of those idyllic drives, and all that innocuously delightful goodwill gets tossed out the window.
"Hyde Park on Hudson" specifically calls forth the June 1939 weekend when FDR hosted the King George and Queen Elizabeth of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) at his family's home in upstate New York, hence the title. World War II is about to erupt, and the Brits have come to ask the Americans for support. Inevitable comparisons to "The King's Speech," for the time frame, the figures it depicts and the prominence of Bertie's stutter, do not work in this film's favor.
Michell awkwardly tries to balance both the farce of cultural clashes - the royals couldn't possibly attend a picnic and eat hot dogs! - and the jealous tension that arises as Daisy realizes she's not the president's only paramour. Linney has a couple of nice scenes with Elizabeth Marvel as the president's secretary, who tries to get her to snap out of it and stop being such a foolish child. She's got a point.
Olivia Williams also brings a no-nonsense presence to her portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt in a "Rushmore" reunion with Murray that's a total letdown. The possibility that the first lady enjoyed a lesbian relationship on the side is merely alluded to but never substantiated; still, an exploration of that might have yielded some actual humanity and surprises.
"Hyde Park on Hudson," a Focus Features release, is rated R for brief sexuality. Running time: 95 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.