Hyde Park on Hudson

FDR was a great President, but he wasn’t a great man. On the other hand, who can really find fault with anyone in that era who bravely overcame his affliction of polio.

Rating: Can be seen anywhere. Regardless of your view of infidelity, eat up the history and its worth the effort.

Hyde Park on HudsonHyde Park on Hudson is an occasionally interesting film that quickly loses its magic. Centering on the visit by the King and Queen of the United Kingdom in the late 1930’s at the invitation of FDR, the first such visit by English royalty, it is a film that should have captured some of the historical allure of Lincoln. However, it gets tragically lost in FDR’s repeated affairs, and as a result it becomes horribly difficult to care about a President that many of us honor to this day.

Bill Murray is fun at playing FDR precisely because he is Bill Murray. Quite frankly, there was a moment when FDR went swimming with the King, and you half expected Mr. Murray to find a dark, cylindrical Baby Ruth at the bottom of the pool as he did in Caddyshack (1980).

The problem with the film is that you only see the President at his family estate at Hyde Park, a place where he occupies most of his time drinking whiskey, martinis, smoking cigarettes and bragging about his stamp collection. You never see him involved in any meaningful actions leading the country, and the film finds a way to diminish him in a fashion that left me a bit uncomfortable.

The strength of the film centers on the visit of the King and Queen, the King being the exact same man with a bad stammer who was the center of attention in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech (2010). Known as Bertie and played here by Samuel West, he is honest, funny and profoundly nervous. His goal is principally not to make an ass out of himself, something that requires the assistance of his intelligent wife.

Queen Elizabeth, played very effectively by Olivia Colman, seeks to preserve the reputation of both her husband and her country. Like her husband, she also is quite funny, and is terribly offended at the prospect of being forced to eat what are called “hot dogs” at a picnic to be attended by the press. This is a lovely royal couple, and it reestablishes the strength displayed by both Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in the above-mentioned The King’s Speech.

However, while the interplay between the King and the President doesn’t miss a beat, the film collapses while centering on FDR’s luring his fifth cousin, Daisy, to be his new paramour. While Laura Linney, as expected, handles this role with as much dignity as possible, it was hard to imagine why FDR wanted her around. On the other hand, once you see some action between the two as they drive together in the country, the answer may not seem very appealing.

The film also is not helped by its failure to center more on FDR’s extraordinary wife, Eleanor. In brief scenes where she appears tolerating her husband as she entertains the King and Queen, it was clear that she was smart enough to fully realize that she could still make a separate mark living largely apart from her husband. Olivia Williams plays Eleanor, and she embraces her small role.

As I watched the film, I was reminded of the story surrounding FDR’s death in 1945, when he was spending time with an old flame while at the Roosevelt Retreat at Warm Springs. This was the same woman Eleanor caught him with in the 1920’s, and she agreed to stay with him if he promised never to see the woman again.

That was one promise he kept until his own daughter assisted him in reuniting with his lost love late in his Presidency. Even though she was spirited away from the compound when FDR was found dead, Eleanor kept a letter from her husband near her bed until her own death. That letter was FDR’s promise in the 1920’s to leave this woman in his rear-view mirror, and it was clear that Mrs. Roosevelt died with a broken heart.

The movie captures none of this, instead trying to include all of the women around FDR in the same domestic conspiracy. Fortunately, secrets could be kept in the 1930’s-40’s, and FDR was able to die with his honor intact. If he tried to do the same thing today, you could expect Ken Starr to resurface and dust off the ammunition he used against President Clinton.

Carly Simon once sang, “These are the good old days.” You’ll seldom hear aging men saying that over a stiff glass of bourbon.