By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 8, 2012)
Lister: (looking out a prison cell window) They’re all just lining up in some kind of firing squad. Whoa, whoa, hang on, someone’s being brought out. They’re tying him to a stake. It’s Winnie the Pooh.
The Cat: What!?
Lister: Winnie the Pooh, I swear. He’s refusing the blindfold.
The Cat: They’re tying Winnie the Pooh to the stake?
(Gunfire erupts from outside)
Lister: (sinks, looking shell shocked) That’s something no-one should ever have to see.
-from Red Dwarf, written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor
Let me tell you something else that no-one should ever have to see: FDR getting a hand job. Even if it is tastefully photographed in a field of clover, in a long shot, accompanied by romantic music…that’s just something that no-one should ever have to see. I’m no prude, and I realize he was only human, and we’ve heard the rumors about the philandering, but still. I guess it’s the liberal idealist inside me that wants to have at least one progressive icon to truly believe in. Oh well. That being said, there’s still a lot to like about Notting Hill director Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson, an engaging (if lightweight) “fly on the wall” dramedy recounting events (documented and speculative) surrounding a 1939 visit by the British King and Queen to Roosevelt’s New York estate.
Rendered in the style of Upstairs, Downstairs (with echoes of Cold Comfort Farm), Michell and his screenwriter Richard Nelson (who adapted from his own play) filter their narrative through the situational observances of a peripheral participant. Her name is Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), and she is the President’s sixth cousin. While historians still debate whether there ever really was anything nasty going on in the woodshed between the real-life Suckley (who died in 1991 at age 99) and FDR, for the purpose of the film the two are assumed as being romantically involved. Their relationship is loosely chronicled through her voice-over narration (Linney, a fine actress, is handed a thankless task at times, wrestling with breathless schoolgirl prose like, “…how I longed for him!”).
The film opens with Daisy being summoned by the President (Bill Murray) to Hyde Park, where aides, staffers and family members are all atwitter about the pending visit from the royal couple. FDR, however, is currently more focused on his stamp collection, and his cousin’s visit. Alone with her in his study, he invites Daisy to come closer to his desk, so she can better appreciate some of his, ah, collectibles (this must run a close second to “Would you like to come up and see some of my etchings?” as a seduction line). At any rate, it’s the genesis of a long-running love affair…at least according to the filmmakers. The affair, which takes up the first third of the 94 minute running time, is actually the film’s weakest element; luckily things pick up considerably in the second act, once King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) arrive for the weekend.
The tone of the film shifts at this juncture for the better, transforming it into more of a comedy of manners and of political protocols. West and Colman are charming as the royal couple. The Queen is quite appalled at the collection of vintage American political cartoons that hang on the wall of their guest room (dating from the War of 1812, the depictions put the British in, shall we say, a somewhat negative light), as well as the prospect of dining on hot dogs (the horror!) at an impending picnic luncheon. On the other hand, Bertie (being a good sport), is more bemused than bothered. In the film’s standout scene, the King and FDR loosen up and bond over drinks in the study. The scene is augmented by the best monologue in the screenplay, in which FDR assuages Bertie’s self-consciousness about his stutter by speaking in a self-deprecating manner about his own inability to walk. At once funny and moving, it’s wonderfully played by both actors.
Murray makes for a surprisingly credible FDR, likely bolstered by the fact that the script doesn’t require him to portray FDR the statesman. In a sense, by so convincingly channeling FDR’s celebrated personal charm, he does give us a fairly insightful glimpse of what made him such a successful politician. There are notable supporting performances from Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt (she’s so good that I wish they had written her a meatier part with more screen time) and from Elizabeth Marvel as FDR’s personal secretary, Missy Lehand. Political junkies and history buffs are forewarned to not expect Michell’s film to be in the same league as Sunrise at Campobello, or the 1976 TV series Eleanor and Franklin; if anything, it shares more in common with Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. You could do worse.