In a movie theater time when the big screens weren’t exploding, “Hyde Park on the Hudson” would probably have gotten a better reception than in 2013. Big muscular movies full of screaming, cheering, bigger-than-life characters are the norm this year: “Lincoln,” who probably never knew or had the life span to have several side-line lovers, “Silver Lining Play Book,” with its roaring mentally ill lover and “Zero Dark Thirty’s” heroic night raiders are holding all the rave cards.
“Hyde Park” on the other hand, is a sweet- and bitter-tinted postcard from long ago, a time almost no one today even remembers. The players, and all those who knew them, are mostly long dead, but they have left behind black and white snapshots of themselves in all of our family albums.
History, that once plodded along through those heroic days, suddenly started moving at Mach speed, and almost no one younger than 80 today even remembers the basic facts about that man in the fedora and cigarette holder, who saved America from the Great Depression and led us through World War II.
What is remembered of FDR is mostly historic mythology, bound in dusty volumes in the libraries of those who served him and the occasional caricature who shows up in high school productions of “Annie.”
In “Hyde Park,” we meet the wizard behind the West Wing curtain, the “real” FDR who had a sexual fondness for cousins, sometimes two and three at a time. His famous, long-suffering wife Eleanor (the splendid Olivia Williams) went farther on in history to make a separate name for herself, but not without a few rumors stuck to her cape. It’s interesting to watch Eleanor, who by this time in history, had toughened up and was nobody’s fool.
Nosy historians with a taste for the purple, know the character of “Daisy” played by the talented Laura Linney, was modeled on FDR’s fifth cousin Margaret Suckley, who spent most of her young life as an impoverished distant relative.
Her diaries and papers found under the bed at her death, surely provided most of the story here. There was Missy LeHand, his personal secretary (Elizabeth Marvel) who along with Suckley, was with him when he died at Warm Springs,Ga.
The brilliant comic, Bill Murray, as our Great White Father, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, glides and hobbles through the movie, not with the majestic bravado of that great man, but with practiced ease and sensitivity. I feared Murray would slide into a caricature as he has done in the past. But he’s a serious cuss now, our Bill, and turns in a splendid, Oscar-worthy performance.
Laura Linney is still as astonishing as she was in her early works. She is a perfect fit as Daisy, who is summoned to the summer White House at Hyde Park, by Franklin’s mother ( Elizabeth Wilson.) Maybe not.
Daisy glides in, in a simple frock taken from the racks of a local Sears Roebucks, perhaps, and a charming summer bonnet. It is the stuff of artistry.
But that is all history, and history, sooner or later, yellows and fades, crinkles and turns to forgotten ashes.
This is a movie, a good one, a tale of hearts, stolen, broken and buried. It is told in modern color, fitted out with vivid, interesting characters. In a sense, it’s an historic comedy of manners. We witness the arrival of King George and Queen Elizabeth (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) on a royal visit to the country estate, where they are treated to a hilarious picnic where Native Americans sing and dance and the great stuttering monarch is feted with a hot dog luncheon. It is all factual, and brilliantly played out for laughs.
It is also a love story of sorts, the story of a great man, who like most great men, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, to name a few, believed that they were free of the moral bonds of common men. They strolled heroically in the brightly lit halls of fame and moved without shame in the shadows of seduction. We, today, live in the wake of their bold heroic decisions, and sometimes discover that the hands that held the levers of power were not as clean as we were led, in our innocent youth, to believe.
J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.