Bill Murray as FDR? It takes a few minutes to get used to, but once he settles into the role of the 32nd president, the idiosyncratic comic actor does a wonderfully jaunty job of it in Hyde Park on Hudson, a seriocomic look at an eventful weekend at the chief executive’s country estate as well as at his unusual domestic arrangement.
With Britain’s King George VI playing an important part in the proceedings as a house guest, audiences will be no doubt be encouraged to think of this classy, mildly ribald slice of biographical arcania as this season’s The King’s Speech, bolstered by the fact that both leaders had to deal with physical impairments. Reflecting a time when the intimate secrets of our leaders could truly be securely kept from the public, this Focus Features holiday release seems eminently promotable as a refined treat that’s nonetheless palatable to a wide audience.
Although decorously staged and tidily written in the manner of many films and television shows about the historical high and mighty, this contribution to 20th century costume drama ventures waist-deep into vaguely queasy territory by exploring, however gingerly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s multiple menage that was either hidden, or ignored, in plain sight under the roof he shared with his wife and mother.
Screenwriter Richard Nelson, who wrote the 1993 film of Ethan Frome and won a Tony as author of the book for the musical James Joyce’s The Dead, doesn’t consistently find the precise register in which to address the president’s indiscretions, especially in the narration of the latest addition to the little brood, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. A plain, intelligent spinster (47 years old in real life at the time) and a sixth cousin to FDR, whom she hasn’t seen in years, Daisy is surprised to be summoned to Springwood, the Roosevelt family estate in Hyde Park, N.Y. In due course, she confides that, “I helped him forget the weight of the world,” which is one way of passing along the news that she is expected to pleasure the polio-stricken president on occasion, something his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams, wonderful), is long since over and done with.
Whether this was actually the role of the real Daisy, who is self-effacingly played with prim dignity and a tinge of bitterness by Laura Linney, remains questionable even today. But for dramatic purposes, she here joins another middle-aged confidante, Roosevelt’s secretary and possible intimate, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel), as well as Eleanor and her circle, whom FDR cheerfully calls “she-men.” In any event, it’s a bright and lively group the boss has assembled around him to keep things running, help him relax and, psychologically, ensure that he’ll always be the center of attention.
Before long, Daisy’s position in the compactly conceived scenario recedes to give way to the main event, the royal visit to Hyde Park at the invitation of Roosevelt. Immortalized two years ago by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech and impersonated last year in Madonna‘s ill-fated W.E. by Damien Thomas, George VI is winningly played this time around by Samuel West in a sympathetic, very likable turn. His wife, Queen Elizabeth, is essayed by Olivia Colman to a degree as a butt of comedy, a disapproving prune with an eagle eye for shortcomings in the accommodations and horrified, but truly horrified, by the presence of hot dogs on the menu for a picnic.
Although the date of the royal tour, the first in history by a British monarch to the former colony, is never specified onscreen (it actually took place during the second week of June 1939, at the behest of Roosevelt as an extension of the king’s scheduled visit to Canada), the specter of war casts a noticeable shadow over the splendid sunny days. With the heads of state setting the pace, nearly everyone drinks and smokes up a storm, and the characters’ diverse forms of eccentricity lend the work an oddly but appealingly off-center quality under Roger Michell‘s astute and fluid directorial hand.
But the film would remain just a bonbon or a mildly diverting lark were it not for its moving central section. After the others have retired, the president invites the king to join him in his study. Cheekily asking the monarch to push him into the room in his wheelchair, Roosevelt liberally dispenses the liquor as he shrewdly guides the conversation in a way that not only cements a personal friendship but builds a useful political bridge and ratchets up George’s morale in the bargain. “This goddamned stutter,” the king laments at one moment. “What stutter?” asks FDR, before letting slip, “This goddamned polio.”
When the president adds that the American people never think about his useless legs, that the subject is never mentioned, it seems to do more for the king’s own confidence than the totality of Lionel Logue‘s speech therapy. And when Roosevelt lauds the king and engages him so directly man-to-man, one gets the distinct impression that George possibly never before has received what felt like genuine, as opposed to rote, praise — that he has been accustomed to only criticism or silent disdain. A revelatory exchange between men of comparable global stature but glaringly different experience and character, the whole episode is beautifully written, directed and performed.
With the dreaded hot dog repast, complete with entertainment by Indians, having been survived, the royals bid farewell. Daisy, who’s about had enough, slips away more discreetly. Ultimately, the FDR-Daisy story is the film’s weakest element, in that the abiding mutual fondness and sense of confidentiality they allegedly share always seems overshadowed by the aversion Daisy feels to the whole arrangement. That Daisy is given pride of place in the story by her framing narration doesn’t entirely square with her position of secondary dramatic interest and importance.
After all, the show is Murray’s. Not as large or physically dominant as the president, Murray nonetheless grows into the role, One feels that, despite a world full of troubles, the man is at home and at ease here, so accustomed to being in control that he never needs to act imperiously or throw his weight around. Numerous accommodations have been made to his disability — his car has been modified so that he can drive it entirely with his hands and it even has a dispenser that disgorges his cigarettes already lit — but he neither feels sorry for himself nor expects special consideration. Murray captures FDR’s wily side without overdoing it and brings the man alive with humor, alertness, intelligence and a sense of confident composure that seem entirely appropriate. The performance is both credible and very entertaining.
Handsomely decked out with a sharp eye for telling production design and wardrobe details, the film greatly benefits from the moody, atypical score by Jeremy Sams.
Opens: Friday, Dec. 7 (Focus Features)
Production: Focus Features, Film Four, Free Range Films, Daybreak Pictures
Venues: Telluride, Toronto, New York film festivals
Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Olivia Williams, Eleanor Bron, Martin McDougall, Andrew Havill
Director: Roger Michell
Screenwriter: Richard Nelson, based on his radio play
Producers: Kevin Loader, Roger Michell, David Aukin
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Music: Jeremy Sams
Rated R, 95 minutes