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Photo Credit: Nicola Dove

There’s nothing quite so frustrating as watching history being made through the eyes of the least interesting person in the room. Following the soggy playbook of last year’s equally dismissible My Week With Marilyn, director Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson is supposed to chronicle the momentous first meeting of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Britain’s King George VI, but all that’s just background noise. Really, the movie is about how FDR’s dowdy distant cousin (Laura Linney) had a schoolgirl crush on the commander in chief.

Working from the diaries of Daisy Suckley, who died at the age of 99 in 1991, Hyde Park on Hudson is a tedious affair about a tedious affair. An aging spinster summoned to the country estate owned by FDR’s nagging mother, Daisy goes for long afternoon drives with the president, admires his stamp collection and eventually ends up giving him the ickiest on-screen handjob this side of The Master. There’s also some issues with Germany, but that isn’t allowed to distract us from the insipid Harlequin romance narration and Jeremy Sams’ syrupy score.

Daisy’s over the moon with girlish adoration, and watching the almost 50-year-old Linney carry on like an inarticulate, lovestruck teenager makes us wonder if Daisy might have more problems than the film is letting on. She snipes competitively with FDR’s secretary (Elizabeth Marvel) while his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), is usually too busy with her furniture-making lady friends to pay much bother.

In a bit of casting that might best be described as improbable, Bill Murray plays FDR. While this easily could’ve come off as a long lost Saturday Night Live sketch, he’s a canny enough actor to understand that we’re never going to forget we’re watching Bill Murray, so instead of trying a full-on impersonation he just keeps his chin tilted up and slightly affects an accent. It’s a pretty good performance, with an impish wit and a fair amount of mystery preserved behind his smiling eyes.

The middle chunk of Hyde Park on Hudson is, for all intents and purposes, a mini-sequel to The King’s Speech, concerning a visit from King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). The stammering “Bertie” is still uneasy on the throne, arriving hat in hand to solicit America’s assistance in World War II. The film all too briefly becomes a comedy of manners, with both hosts and guests puzzling over logistics and formalities, as FDR insists on serving his royal guests hot dogs for lunch.

These are the most entertaining scenes in the picture, and they have nothing to do with Daisy. She’s just standing out in the yard pining for the president while all the important stuff happens indoors. There’s a boozy, late-night bull session between FDR and Bertie that’s so perceptively written and performed, it seems to have been spliced in from a better movie.

Screenwriter Richard Nelson’s lone clever conceit is that the two most powerful men in the free world bond over their secret infirmities, with both the king’s stutter and the president’s polio kept quiet by a press that once knew of restraint. “Can you imagine the disappointment when they find out what we are?” FDR asks with a sly smile, boosting Bertie’s shaky confidence and offering the paternal support we learned he lacked in that other movie. (Lovely as this scene is, it’s worth wondering if Hyde Park on Hudson will make any sense to viewers who haven’t seen The King’s Speech. I also must admit that this is the most I’ve thought about The King’s Speech since I saw it and immediately forgot everything about it two years ago.)

Alas, we’re soon back to Daisy’s sappy romantic woes and the none-too-shocking revelation that she’s not the only lucky lady to get an intimate look at the president’s stamp collection. The ensuing petulant outbursts are of course overheard by the Brits, with a lot of silly door-slamming farce as the king tries to figure out exactly how many women his new pal is bedding down.

At best faintly amusing and determinedly pleasant, Hyde Park on Hudson is one of those golden-hued, awards-season films that’ll probably play like gangbusters with seniors. Taking great pains to remain inoffensive, the movie wears its slightness on its sleeve. But I think even Daisy Suckley herself might wonder why anybody would want to make a movie about her. 

Hyde Park on Hudson 
Starring Laura Linney, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Samuel West, Olivia Colman and Elizabeth Marvel. Written by Richard Nelson. Directed by Roger Michell. At Kendall Square and West Newton Cinema.