Though beautifully mounted, impeccably shot and well put together by director Roger Michell, there seems to be a lack of passion within this film that is something required to help us understand what is happening with the characters.
Bill Murray as FDR, one of the greatest American Presidents, one of the great historical figures of the 20th century takes about five minutes to get settle in, and at that point we accept the actor as the great man. Murray has the speech patterns down, the physicality, but most important, he captures Roosevelt’s intellect and ferocious appetite for the female of our species. His affairs were legendary, though well concealed by his staff, at least one of them whom he was sleeping with. Common knowledge to everyone it seemed. What is it with great men and their marriages? Why can they not be loyal to the women they marry, who appear (it seems) to stand by them and support them. Look at Kennedy, or Clinton, much loved leaders who had trouble being faithful. Roosevelt, apparently was no different, and as played by Murray this manages to humanize him, knock him off the pedestal many have placed him on and allow the actor to portray him as a mere mortal.
Spending more and more time at his mothers’ home at Hyde Park, he begins a friendship with his distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney) which after a gentle beginning becomes a full blown love affair. Daisy recognizes that she is sleeping with the world’s most powerful man, and that everyone he encounters seems to want something from him, except her. All she wants is him, and his loyalty. She will come to realize that she can’t have both because he will remain with his wife, and will continue to have affairs with many other women while sleeping with her.
The affair plays out against the backdrop of the visit from King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1939, at a time when it was certain England was going to war with Germany and needed the assistance of the United States. A British monarch had never been on American soil until FDR invited them to meet with him at his mother’s home. When the royals arrive they are shocked at the goings on in the home, not sure whether they should be insulted by the fact hot dogs are served at a BBQ, and not terribly confident they can count on the help of the President. What they do learn is that the President is as active at night as he is through the day, though doing very different things.
There is much humor in the Murray performance but also the actor captures some of the loneliness that must exist in being the President of the United States. Your life is never really your own again and you make decisions that will impact the lives of millions of people who look to you for leadership. How can you predict what Adolf Hitler is going to do? And that is the heavy weight that bears down on FDR through the film. I liked what Murray did with the part, there is no trace of Bill Murray the actor, the comedian in the part at all, he becomes Roosevelt gently in front of us, and the moment he lights a cigarette sitting in his holder he becomes FDR.
Laura Linney portrays Daisy with a pride and sadness that is often deeply moving. She understands her place in life, knows that her family was once wealthy and now they are not, and she accepts that. When summoned to the President she is surprised, self-effacing, and timid, but her confidence grows as does their friendship and love for one another. By the end she has become bitter about her situation and certainly thinks less of the President than she once did, and Linney conveys this very well. What we do not get is why? Why enter into an affair with a man considerably older than her, not a terribly handsome man, and a married man at that? Why? And we never get an answer. Is it as simple as because he is President?
More surprising, is the cavalier attitude with which FDR treats the women in his life, with the exception of his mother to whom he raises his voice just once, when she tries to take away his liquor. It is an interesting element that unlike Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) never gets explored.
The film’s best moments happen between FDR and King George (Samuel West) who as we know struggles with a stammer (or stutter depending on who you read). There in the quiet of FDR’s study, we see two powerful men, each flawed in some way attempting to get to know one another so one can ask the other for help. FDR presents to the gentle King a father figure that he never really had, and a confidence in him as King that even he himself lacks. There is real emotion in the scene, real honesty between the actors that the film never quite matches again. Both actors are wonderful in the scene, no small feat for Samuel West as Colin Firth won an Oscar for playing the same character in The King’s Speech (2010).
Olivia Williams does a nice job as Eleanor Roosevelt capturing the woman’s strengths and standing beside her husband rather than calling him out for the affairs. I suppose it is an element of marriage, of relationships I do not understand and never will.
Having seen the film, I am not so sure Murray could land in the Oscar race. There are a lot of fine performances up here, and more still to come. He’s good, but I am not sure he’s Oscar nomination good. And overall the film is a disappointment, never giving us the insight into FDR I had hoped we would experience.