Who among us isn’t intrigued by the prospect of a juicy, between-the-sheets look at the scandal-worthy love life of our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt? If you said, “Ick. I don’t want to see that, and I can’t imagine anyone who would,” then you are not among the cast and crew of Hyde Park on Hudson.
This boutique drama (with faint dustings of comedy) is loosely based on a recently unearthed set of private journals from FDR’s close cousin Margaret Suckley, who died in 1991 at the age of 99. The journals seem to imply that Suckley and her presidential cuz had a rather intimate relationship. Though previously unheard-of and still-unproven, Suckley’s posthumous, kissin’ cousin claims formed the basis of Richard Nelson’s 2009 play Hyde Park-on-Hudson. The play has now been turned into a sincere, but sincerely off-kilter movie by British director Roger Michell (Notting Hill).
The biggest gimmick, of course, is seeing funnyman Bill Murray play it straight as the Depression-era commander-in-chief. To his immense credit, he nails the role, giving FDR just the right amount of gravitas, charm, ebullience, frailty and mischievousness. Also, he kinda looks the part, tooth-clenched cigarette holder, upthrust chin and all. Too bad he wasn’t given a better script to play around in.
The stagebound story takes place one weekend in 1939 at Roosevelt’s family estate, Springwood, in upstate New York. Europe, you’ll recall, is on the verge of World War II, and King George VI (the stuttering dude from The King’s Speech) and Queen Elizabeth of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman, doing good work) have arrived to talk The Prez into joining the war effort. But that’s all just pomp-and-circumstantial backdrop to FDR’s dalliances with the ladies—primarily his sixth cousin, Margaret, a.k.a. “Daisy” (played gamely by Laura Linney). Things get hot and heavy early with the polio-stricken institutor of the New Deal getting a “handy j” while tooling around in his custom-built automobile. No, really. No. Really. Now there’s something you didn’t see in Lincoln!
Linney, a monumentally good actress, just goes with it. She brings a certain grace to her dowdy spinster character, but isn’t given much of a character arc with which to work. Poor Daisy is the ostensive focus here, since the entire story is based on her alleged account of things. Whether she knocked boots with FDR or not, she was a major admirer of the man. As a result, her version comes from a stilted and severely limited viewpoint. True, she was his personal assistant for a time, but there are probably people better suited to tell this historic tale. Olivia Williams (Anna Karenina, “Dollhouse,” X-Men: The Last Stand), for example, plays Mrs. Roosevelt—the hottest, youngest version of Eleanor Roosevelt you’re likely to see. Unfortunately, we get little of her perspective. She spends most of the movie gazing out through parted curtains, grinding her teeth and tacitly accepting her husband’s infidelities.
The whole thing plays out like a randy episode of “Big Brother” enacted by the cast of “Downton Abbey.” Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with humanizing our heroes, but Hyde Park on Hudson never really gets around to that. It just dusts off some old rumors and paints its protagonist as the old-timey equivalent of a Bill Clinton sketch from “Saturday Night Live.” (Don’t believe me, check out the hot dog scene.) It’s the eve of World War II, for crying out loud, shouldn’t we be doing something more constructive than peeping in FDR’s bedroom window?