Hyde Park Lark
What FDR was really up to during his presidency—or not
Published: December 26, 2012
Hyde Park on Hudson
Directed by Roger Michell
Now playing at the Charles Theatre
If you dozed off during Lincoln, perhaps tired from turkey and politics, Hyde Park on Hudson offers a historically breezy presidential-movie alternative. Where Spielberg sticks to amendment-passing and wartime concerns—Mary Todd and Abraham quarreling over their sons is about as personal as it gets—director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson spotlight moments more taboo, like smooth-talking, martini-swilling Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray) getting a handy in his car while parked in a field of wildflowers.
Based on longtime upstate New York resident Nelson’s BBC radio play, “Hyde-Park-on-Hudson,” the British-made film twists together two narratives. King George VI (the same George as in The King’s Speech, played not by Colin Firth but by the not-nearly-as-dashing but equally persuasive Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) were the first reigning British sovereigns to step foot in the United States, in June of 1939, during a more extensive tour of Canada. Their sojourn at the Roosevelt estate lasts only a day or two, but Hyde Park on Hudson frames the visit in the context of FDR’s intimate relationship with his sixth cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), which spanned several years. In real life, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley—FDR’s cousin, confidante, and personal archivist—was considered by the public as merely a close friend until her diary and romantically charged correspondence with the president was discovered under her bed after her death in 1991; to wit, they did not detail a handjob, but, in 1935, some significant encounter of sorts occurred on what the two referred to as “Our Hill.”
Though the two plots claim only a flimsy connection, the movie’s structure makes for a colorful, albeit one-dimensional vehicle that examines FDR’s charisma. Franklin charms Daisy, the shrinking-violet type, by having her pore over his stamp collection and taking her for bucolic drives through the New York hillsides in his custom-built, hand-operated car. His legs are lame, but Franklin’s masculine allure derives from his confidence and ease, as well as his power. With a economically depressed nation and an embattled England looking to him for solutions, he wields a great deal of clout; yet, he just wants to relax.
Which is where the women come in. In Hyde Park on Hudson, three jockey for closeness to Franklin: innocent, homely Daisy; his plain-spoken secretary, Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel); and Eleanor (Olivia Williams, who resembles Eleanor Roosevelt insofar as they both have brown hair), quick-witted, composed, and aloof. FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford is also alluded to. Though the movie mainly follows Daisy’s emotional attachment to Franklin, it dips into her interactions with Missy and Eleanor just enough to hint at the complexity of, basically, openly sharing a presidential philanderer.
Lest you forget, FDR is also widely recognized as an exceptional leader. The Windsors’ stop at Hyde Park might allow Nelson and Michell to showcase FDR’s political prowess, but the movie opts to further explore Franklin’s personal magnetism. Always prepared with a quip, he disarms the stiff-lipped monarchs with candor. He sequesters Bertie, the king, in his office after a formal dinner; he pours him hearty drinks, offers him a smoke; they talk about their wives and, eventually, their disabilities. Franklin tells Bertie he would be proud of him if he were his father. He’s not necessarily insincere, but he’s wily—employing the kind of tactics he does with Daisy, telling the king what he wants to hear.
The character coheres but doesn’t fully present FDR, who saw the nation through the Great Depression and World War II over the course of three presidential terms. Michell gives us one shot where he’s surrounded by microphones, about to deliver a radio broadcast, and that’s the most work he does in the film. Daisy emphasizes his stress level, but the economic depression and the pending war, though mentioned, don’t seem to seriously furrow any American’s brow. Even as Franklin lulls the king into relaxing, the political purpose of the act isn’t clear: Bertie already had to make nice in order to secure American support. It appears to be more of a personal conquest than an act of diplomacy or politicking.
Still, the movie cruises along as enjoyably as one of Franklin and Daisy’s afternoon drives. It excels in teasing out social dynamics, punched up by culture shock. Eleanor insists on having Native Americans perform for the royals. Franklin leaves printed cartoons deriding British soldiers in the War of 1812 in the guest bedroom. Queen Elizabeth frets over the symbolism of the king eating a hot dog. Nelson’s script effectively lightens up Daisy’s emotional drama, which can feel slightly syrupy with Laura Linney’s diary-esque narration.
Michell’s direction reinforces the movie’s themes. In an early scene, the camera wheels around Eleanor, Franklin, Missy, and Daisy as Missy and Eleanor demand that Daisy weigh in on some subject. The motion simulates the circling of wolves as they size up their prey; Eleanor and Missy, assertive and direct, seem to whirl about Daisy menacingly. Likewise, when Daisy first enters Franklin’s office in Hyde Park, the camera shakes ever-so-slightly, signaling her nervousness. Michell adds texture to film’s aesthetic with a few different tricks. He shifts the focus of a shot rapidly in a number of early scenes. He uses quick cuts with varying vantage points—in the numerous driving scenes, the camera’s point of view is that of a car’s hood or even its front grill.
The cuts work well. The movie flies by, clocking in at an hour and a half. In that time, Michell renders enough laughter from the crowd, in a tasteful way, that we’re inclined to forgive the defective depiction of an American president.
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