By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s The King’s Speech meets FDR’s breach.
In June of 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife hosted England’s King and Queen for a weekend at the chief executive’s country estate in upstate New York, at Hyde Park on Hudson – the first time a reigning English monarch ever visited the United States.
That’s the real-life setup for the seriocomic docudrama, Hyde Park on Hudson, with British reserve being contrasted with American exuberance and Britain facing an imminent war with Germany, an undertaking that diplomatic King George hopes desperately will win FDR’s support and thus that of isolationist America.
But geopolitics takes somewhat of a back seat to the sexual geometry of the Roosevelt household, under the roof of which during this royal weekend temporarily reside the president’s seemingly estranged wife, imposing mother, and at least two accommodating mistresses.
Everything is seen through the eyes of Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley, played by Laura Linney, a distant cousin and confidante of the president who is summoned to the White House as the film opens and is told that the president, always under stress and needing to relax, would benefit greatly from her company.
But Daisy’s story, which early on would appear central to the film as she delivers intermittent voiceover narration, remains underdeveloped, dropping right off the priority chart as soon as the high stakes of potential U.S. involvement in World War II land on the table.
Bill Murray, of all people, plays Roosevelt in his first starring role in seven years. He doesn’t attempt an impersonation, but he does completely submerge his comic goofball persona and delivers a credible FDR who’s droll, resourceful, charming, self-deprecatory, manipulative, and ultimately sympathetic.
As for Linney, she seems stuck in a thankless role that seems both inauthentic and incomplete.
Olivia Williams plays First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Wilson is FDR’s mother, Sara, and Elizabeth Marvel his savvy and pragmatic secretary, Marguerite “Missy’ LeHand, also, apparently, a mistress.
Meanwhile, King George VI, played by Samuel West, is the same person played by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, with Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth.
When the two men meet and have a private discussion, they come to see the king’s severe stutter and Roosevelt’s polio as similarly incapacitating for world leaders.
But the film, directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Persuasion, Morning Glory, Venus), which is to a degree piggybacking on the appeal and success of The King’s Speech with its worldwide audience, leaves a sour taste.
The screenplay by Richard Nelson, based on his 2009 BBC radio play, which in turn was loosely based on entries in Daisy’s diaries and journals that were found after her death in 1991, is set in an era when the intimate secrets and infidelities of world leaders could and would be kept from the public. But Nelson and Michell take almost unconscionable liberties with the domestic arrangements – especially in intimate sexual scenes that no one could have been witness to – by depicting occurrences and relationships that seem highly speculative without being labeled as such.
The parallel of special relationships between nations and special relationships between people couldn’t be clearer. But there’s a loose-lips tastelessness that hovers over the otherwise respectable production.
So we’ll elect 2 stars out of 4 for the problematic sex-and-politics dramedy, Hyde Park on Hudson. Bill Murray is fun to watch as FDR, but the unsavory tabloid revelations about FDR playing whoops-a-Daisy are a bit much.