In an era which has seen quite a few books and films which purport to examine the private lives of public figures, Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson (2012/just released on DVD and Blu-ray) is a gem – an understated, subtle, slyly funny, and often touching exploration of a behind-the-0scenes moment in the dazzling career of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Set in 1939 at the Roosevelt Adirondack estate, the movie tells the tale of the visit of the King and Queen of England to Hyde Park prior to the outbreak of World War II. Against the backdrop of two dramatically different cultural traditions and the impending madness of America’s entry into the great war, the screenplay focuses not only on FDR’s genius as a diplomat on the world stage, but also on his charm and skill as an incorrigible womanizer. Here is a man who, in addition to his wining and dining George VI and Elisabeth is busy making love to his long suffering secretary, Missy LeHand, while at the same time seducing his distant cousin, Daisy, all under the scathing eyes of his dowager mother, Sara Roosevelt, and the nonchalant notice of his liberated, lesbian wife, Eleanor.
But it is precisely this finely tuned tension between the public and private worlds which gives the film its bite. Told from Daisy’s perspective (based on journals and letters discovered after her death) the film blends deft irony, wicked humor, and gentle pathos.
Its success relies primarily on the strength of its cast. Often an intriguing but quirky actor, Bill Murray, who garnered a justly deserved Oscar nomination, is nothing short of mesmerizing as FDR. It takes a few minutes for the viewer to recognize the iconic President in Murray’s galvanizing smile and wickedly sparkling eyes, but then, there he is in all the man’s mercurial manifestations: touch, blunt, wily, vibrant, winsome, and vulnerable.
It is the vulnerability which wins over the shy Daisy, played exquisitely by Laura Linney. Though Daisy is the heart of the story, her self-effacing nature poses a challenge to an actress. Linney rises to this task, resisting any temptation to glamorize or overdramatize her, playing her, instead, as the poor church mouse in awe of her illustrious cousin, but also as a woman of intrinsic dignity who must find a way to preserve her self-respect while venturing into the uncharted waters of love.
Samuel West gives a nicely nuanced portrayal of Bertie, the reluctant young king, and a privileged innocent who falls under FDR’s fatherly spell. Olivia Colman is charmingly tart yet sympathetic as his consort, Elisabeth. Olivia Williams’ Eleanor is less a domineering harridan and far more a wise woman who knows how to pick and choose her battles and who, for all the unconventionality of her marriage, retains deep respect and affection for her husband. Rounding out the excellent ensemble are Elizabeth Marvel as Missy and Elizabeth Wilson as Mrs. Roosevelt.
Hyde Park on Hudson takes us on a nostalgic, sometimes whimsical journey not only to a little known event in our history, but also to a time when, as Daisy so aptly sums it up, people were able to keep secrets – where privacy even in public lives was yet a precious commodity.