Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Not an obvious choice but after watching him play the 32nd president in “Hyde Park on Hudson” it makes perfect sense. Over the last two decades, Murray has been venturing beyond clownish goofball parts to tackle more subtle and mature, if still mostly semi-comic, roles. And though it aspires to be weightier, “Hyde Park on Hudson” works best as a light comedy.
This amusing lark examines FDR through the eyes of his distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, portrayed by the reliable Laura Linney. In June 1939, Daisy, who lives near the Roosevelt family estate in upstate New York, is summoned to the home of Roosevelt’s mother Sara (Elizabeth Wilson). On drives through the surrounding countryside, Daisy and Franklin form an affectionate bond, which is to say she becomes his mistress.
Geopolitics soon intrudes when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrive to solicit America’s help in the looming war. It is the first-ever stateside visit by a reigning British monarch and the plan is for the royal couple to spend one night at Hyde Park before attending a picnic at which, shockingly, hot dogs will be the main course. The guests of honor are apprehensive and Sara is horrified; she also balks at serving cocktails before dinner. In contrast, Eleanor (Olivia Williams) prizes informality and democratic touches. She balks at curtseying and insists on addressing the queen as Elizabeth.
As the scenario unfolds, we are privy to the birth of the “special relationship” that will henceforth describe Anglo-American relations. And, along with Daisy, we learn there are unspoken rules governing intimate relationships with the commander in chief.
On the diplomatic front, FDR deftly calms the nervous George, who had the crown thrust upon him when his brother Edward abdicated and whose stutter became Oscar bait last year. While unlikely to snag as many accolades as “The King’s Speech,” “Hyde Park” bathes 20th-century history in a similar “Masterpiece Theatre” glow. The decorous approach is intended to make the foibles of the privileged, ruling classes accessible. We are urged to feel the frisson of proximity, as opposed to the sting of envy or the outrage of moral superiority. The film tries a bit too hard to charm, much as FDR attempts to put George at ease by adopting a soothing, fatherly tone and by referencing his own weaknesses with a practiced nonchalance.
Screenwriter Richard Nelson’s fictionalized account was inspired by Daisy’s diaries and correspondence with FDR, discovered when she died in 1991. The script’s greatest virtue is its sympathy for every character. Taking his cue from Daisy’s adoring attitude toward FDR, Nelson is deliberately nonjudgmental.
Murray is definitely the actor to cast if you want to show that the great men of history are people too. Guided by director Roger Michell (“Persuasion,” “Notting Hill”), he gives a natural, unmannered performance; he embodies a jaunty patrician without resorting to impersonation or caricature. Murray’s FDR is sly, playful and armed with a healthy libido. As polio continues to take its toll and stress manifests itself in other bodily ways, he uses sex, alcohol and nicotine to decompress. His almost childlike vulnerability when being carried in the arms of a male aide adds another wrinkle to the portrait and makes his paternalistic bonhomie all the more mesmerizing. In his private life at least, this FDR is an all-too-human cad—an unfailingly polite and crippled lothario whom we are asked to understand and admire rather than condemn.
His relationships with his formidable wife and mother are key. They are depicted as sources of strength yet also affectionately lampooned as idiosyncratic, contrary and generally bothersome. When it comes to his philandering, however, they are amazingly tolerant. In fact, it is Sara who initially recruits Daisy to distract her son from his troubles; and the First Lady’s reputed Sapphic leanings are matter-of-factly discussed behind her back. As Daisy takes her place in FDR’s inner circle, alongside the two Mrs. Roosevelts and his longtime secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), she discovers they are all committed to maintaining his public image and willing to overlook his peccadillos. Call it noblesse oblige, American style.
Comparisons to George and Elizabeth’s marriage and sense of duty are telling. He dreads being king and they are both uncomfortable in the spotlight. Though plainly devoted to one another—extramarital affairs seem out of the question—they are not sappy or above petty recriminations. For instance, Elizabeth (hilariously limned by Olivia Colman) knows which of her husband’s buttons to push regarding Edward, who gave up the throne for an American divorcee. Still, the love girding their marriage will, in turn, help monarch and consort lead their subjects through World War II.
While Elizabeth brings out the best in George, FDR frequently complains that the two principal women in his life do not allow him to be his authentic self. He speaks of his desire to escape and tells Daisy that all he wants when they are together is to “relax and just be ourselves.” Eventually it becomes clear this is a line—a ploy to seduce her and merely one example of FDR using his rhetorical skills to get what he desires. We are left with the impression that the “real” FDR is a graceful manipulator. “Hyde Park on Hudson” suggests, gingerly, that, like many towering historical figures (see “Lincoln”), FDR was adept at donning masks.
In her retrospective narration, Daisy remarks that people projected onto FDR “whatever it was they wanted to see.” She doesn’t appear to exempt herself or express any regret. She also observes that the events of the movie took place at a time “when the world had secrets.” Indeed, it is virtually impossible to keep one’s public and private lives separate nowadays, especially when the press is not willing to be complicit as it was with FDR and, say, John F. Kennedy.
Although one can argue that the erosion of the private sphere for politicians is a positive development, it has deleterious effects. A society in which nothing remains hidden leads to increasingly salacious entertainment offerings, tawdry media coverage and shrill public discourse. From an ethical standpoint, there is a tendency to treat all transgressions the same; our capacity to differentiate and fairly adjudicate is diminished. In this atmosphere, both serious personal failings and laudable achievements are more likely to be obscured.