We very nearly went to see this film last October when it was included in the London Film Festival programme. For a start I knew that Michael really likes Bill Murray (me? -- I'm a little indifferent) who was taking the lead role as the well-loved president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and secondly because I have fond memories of visiting Hyde Park (not the one in London, but the setting for Roosevelt's country retreat along the Hudson River, subsequently turned into an FDR museum) as a child. To make an already long story short, we decided per our usual guidelines for 'mainstream' films to wait until it received the inevitable cinema release. Well we had to wait until now and nearly didn't go at all, since the critics' reviews here were lukewarm at best.
Anyhow I'm pleased that I followed my instincts, since it turned out to be a slow, but gentle, 95 minutes in the cinema -- a far cry from the usual slap 'em up, knock-em down features that pull in today's audience. I was surprised therefore that the afternoon showing we attended was reasonably full. The story -- a slight one at best -- is set on a weekend in 1939 when FDR and his entourage are expecting a house visit from King George VI and his wife on the first trip to the United States by a British monarch. Their purpose is to woo American support for the looming forthcoming war; his is to carry on business as usual, juggling affairs of state with managing the bevy of bossy women who surround him -- his mother, his wife Eleanor, and several mistresses.
Unfortunately the story is largely told through the eyes of one of the latter, his distant cousin Daisy, played by Laura Linney. She is something of a drab little thing when she is summoned to keep him company at the country house; she is asked to admire his stamp collection (a ploy like "come up and see my etchings"). They go on a ride together in his specially adapted open-top car, when he pulls up and manipulates her into manipulating him. The camera discreetly pulls away, and as Kenny Everett used to say, it is all done in the best possible taste. The occasional affair develops from there until she eventually discovers that she is one of several, including his long-time assistant Missy, a much stronger and more attractive Elizabeth Marvel. It is when the film moves away from the Linney strand that it becomes more entertaining. Murray does a first-class job of giving us the feel of the crippled president, without in any way really trying to morph into him under layers of make-up. The actor leaves his droll comic chops behind and becomes the rounded, flawed yet loveable rogue we see on screen. Not really an Oscar-worthy performance as some would have it, but an immensely watchable one.
The rest of the main cast is largely spot on. Olivia Williams drabs down to become Eleanor the formidable 'wife' in name only; even so she still looks far too attractive. Samuel West plays the stuttering Bertie that we all know from the Colin Firth film, but still comes across as a feisty tryer, who really wants to become his own man. Only Olivia Coleman as Elizabeth lets the side down, lacking the warmth that Helena Bonham Carter brought to the role, and largely seems a rather unlikeable snob. The highpoint of her dilemma is whether or not her husband will eat a low-class hot dog at the picnic planned for the next day. Bertie manages to charm everyone on the day, despite the raucous entertainment by tom-tom beating Indians laid on by the effusive Eleanor. The real rapport between FDR and the young king comes across in a late-night scene over a few tumblers of whiskey where they admit their various handicaps and how they are best overcome. This was the start of the so-called famous 'special relationship' between the U.S. and Britain.
The director Roger Michell actually shot the entire movie in England, yet he gives us the feeling that we are really tootling along in the rural New York countryside. Similar care is taken with the set design, art direction, and costuming with the result that we feel that we are being given a privileged look into history and a way of life long gone. Naturally everyone smokes non-stop!