‘Hyde Park on Hudson’

In Hyde Park Bill Murray as FDR drives his modified carAt this rate, it’s going to take at least a dozen movies to get through the reign of Britain’s King George VI.

Two years ago, “The King’s Speech,” of course, saw Colin Firth play the man as he dealt with his unexpected assumption of the throne and struggles with a speech impediment. Then last year we got Damien Thomas’ turn in “W.E.”

Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson,” this year’s George VI movie as it were, deals with a mere weekend in June 1939, albeit it a fateful one, where he and his wife visit President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his home in upstate New York.

To be sure, the British king and queen (well played by Samuel West and Olivia Colman as insecure royals among powerful but vaguely alien beings) are mere supporting players in this intimate historical drama. The major emphasis lies with Bill Murray’s FDR and Laura Linney’s Daisy, a cousin of the American president and possibly his lover.

In the movie, this possibility is taken as fact even though there lacks credible evidence about this. As this might suggest, however, the screenplay by playwright Richard Nelson has a pronounced split focus.

Unless one followed the news about the discovery of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley’s diaries and correspondence with FDR following her death in 1991, there is real novelty in a drama concerning FDR and his dalliance with a woman otherwise unknown to history.

Hyde Park on Hudson sees Eleanor Roosevelt entertain British kingAnd yet the film does concern a royal visit to the U.S. on the eve of World War II, a visit that formed the basis of the “special relationship” between England and America.

Certainly the two delicate situations, one over a weekend and the other over many years, intertwined. But Nelson’s script shifts awkwardly back and forth between these two scenarios by suggesting that both situations went through a crisis during those few days.

A presidential mistress makes a good window into events of worldwide importance, serving to humanize figures frozen in place in books and old photos. But a spinster’s emotional upheavals make a poor contrast with the fate of nations hanging in the balance on that summer weekend.

The other curious thing about the attempt to humanize these historical personalities by Nelson and his director Roger Michell is how poorly everyone comes off. Except the British visitors.

(Nelson is American and Michell British so I don’t think there is any ax to grind here.)

You could make the case that the modern presidency derives from the administration of FDR. Certainly there are few figures in American history with as much charisma and political savvy as Roosevelt.

In Hyde Park FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt pose with his cousinMurray does a solid job of creating a complex character out of this polio victim, not in the best of health on the cusp of a great world crisis, struggling to find a balance in his private and public lives.

But the screenplay makes him out to be awfully tired with only half an eye on a world heading for war and rather longing for retirement so he can retreat to a hillside cottage to write detective novels.

He is also seen as an exploiter of women even as the women in his life — his mother Sara (Elizabeth Wilson), wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) — drive him crazy with their separate demands.

Linney’s Daisy is viewed as a wallflower, drab and dull. However accurate this portrait may be, it fails to explain what drove such a powerful leader into her arms.

Most peculiarly, Eleanor Roosevelt, certainly the most celebrated of First Ladies, comes off as remote, uneasy with royals and a bit snide. Really?

Sara is amusing in fussing over her famous guests and her staunch anti-alcohol stance, which her son mostly ignores even in her own home. (The Hyde Park mansion actually was in her name.) Missy is practical and observant, aware of her boss’ affairs and seeing them as things to be managed not curtailed.

Thus, the Americans come off as somewhat provincial and overly sly. Leaving the king, who you’ll recall from “The King’s Speech” is called Bertie, and his wife somewhat stranded in the country.

In Hyde Park on Hudson FDR motors with his loverWhatever do the Roosevelts mean by putting them in upstairs quarters lined with anti-British cartoons dating from the War of 1812? Are the hot dogs that will be proffered at an upcoming picnic meant as an insult?

“I don’t know,” mutters Bertie to his alarmed wife’s queries on these delicate points.

Everyone back home is counting on Bertie to overcome American isolationism and reticence toward the British monarchy for desperately needed support in the war to come with Germany. But he doesn’t know how to read the tea leaves — or rather those damn hot dogs.

Michell directs all this at the pace of a slow leaky faucet, perhaps to catch the awkward moments and fumbles in etiquette that comprise much of the film’s humor. This does allow for terrific insights into the ways of a different era.

A compliant press never photographs FDR except when he is seated in order to avoid showing his handicap. He even persuades them to take no photographs of him and Bertie in their swim suits. Can you imagine the current media agreeing to such requests?

Wheelchairs of the day were pretty clumsy affairs so you learn that a muscular assistant lifted FDR from one seat and carried him to another so he could move swiftly in and around the Hyde Park mansion.

Meanwhile, with a discreet wave of his hand a police escort will peel off its surveillance of the American president while he motors into the countryside alone with a woman.

I rather liked the whole notion of “spying” as well.

Daisy is sent upstairs, “behind enemy lines,” to see what the king and queen are up to. Household servants press ears to closed door to hear what is transpiring. And if anything can be counted on it’s that servants, assistants and secretaries work less for their direct employer than the person to whom they secretly report.

These are at the kind of tidbits that come alive on a movie screen but barely appear in history books. Thanks to Murray’s splendid performance, you also get a real sense of FDR’s day-to-day personal physical struggles as he tries to get a handle on the worsening international situation.

His relationship with the British monarch assumes a fatherly tone as the men drink illicitly in the president’s study. Both have this in common: They are men with handicaps who feel the enormous pressures of history bearing down on them.

The president looks for folksy ways to break the ice with the young king and to assure him of America’s commitment to Britain’s survival. All Bertie needs to do is eat a damn hot dog, to show he can be a regular guy to a suspicious American public.

Yet for some reason Linney’s spinster sixth cousin to the president is the real focus here and it simply doesn’t work. Linney delivers a quietly observant and affecting performance but finds no way to demonstrate why this woman should steal the spotlight from two world leaders looking for a way to establish a special relationship.

The one FDR may have shared with Daisy Suckley never feels that special.

Production design and wardrobe details are all first rate without waving flags at viewers as is often the case in costume dramas.

Opens: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 (Focus Features)
Production: Focus Features and Film4 preset a Free Range Films/Daybreak Pictures
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
Producers: Kevin Loader, Roger Michell, David Aukin
Executive producer: Tessa Ross
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Music: Jeremy Sams
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
R rating, 95 minutes