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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson

Bill Murray does FDR

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Margaret “Daisy” Suckley’s branch of the family had slipped into genteel poverty in the shadow of their more prominent relatives. Then one day, the quiet monotony of her existence is broken by a phone call from the nearby manor of the most prominent among her clan. A car is dispatched and whisks Daisy away to what becomes a fairytale romance. She is a slightly dowdy Cinderella and her prince is the President of the United States, her fifth (or is it sixth?) cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

At least that’s the story told by Hyde Park on Hudson. The real-life Daisy survived until 1991 as the archivist of FDR’s library, and after her death, diaries and letters surfaced suggesting some degree of intimacy between her and the President. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and screenwriter Richard Nelson run as far as they dare with those suggestions. In reality FDR and the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, did lead separate sexual lives. In Hyde Park on Hudson, the President presides like a benign pasha over a small harem of admirers, measuring his favors in spoonfuls while juggling affairs of state during an economic depression and mounting global tension.

Oh, and the British king and queen are coming to his Hyde Park manor for the first ever royal visit to the U.S. FDR’s mother, in a panic, borrows Mrs. Astor’s china for the occasion. The politically correct Eleanor insists on American Indian performers to entertain the visitors and a hotdog luncheon is served on the lawn. Daisy shows George VI how to apply mustard to his wiener with a knife. World War II is only two months away.

A mildly charming, fluffy mix of fact and fancy, Hyde Park on Hudson is interesting because it is set in a time when the press knew how to keep secrets. Known but left unspoken was the strained presidential marriage and even FDR’s inability to walk without the support of crutches or bodyguards. In Hyde Park on Hudson, the boys of the press are content to linger in the anterooms of the gentleman-in-chief. When FDR asks for no photographs of him and the king in their bathing suits, the boys happily comply.

Bill Murray is made up to resemble Roosevelt and has mastered many of his dapper gestures, dabbing the air with a cigarette holder while holding court. But he falls short trying to emulate the patrician ebullience of the President’s voice. As Daisy, Laura Linney has the advantage; playing an obscure historical figure that left no impression on the public’s imagination, her performance cannot be compared and cross-checked with the record of the real person. Linney embodies Daisy with an awkward trepidation that gives way to dewy romance, petulance at what she takes for rejection and, at last, easy acceptance of her modest role in the supporting cast of FDR’s performance as statesman, politician and wartime leader.

As for the stiff-lipped caricatures of George VI and his queen, Elizabeth, the royals received a better account in The King’s Speech, a considerably more powerful film that concludes at the same perilous moment in history as Hyde Park on Hudson.

 

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