Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
The Oscar buzz you have heard in regard to Bill Murray’s portrayal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is well deserved. With the help of makeup, the right props such as the cigarette tilted upward in its holder, and excel lent voice intonation, he is a convincing replica of the man who was able to charm so many people. But he himself was lonely and under great pressure, he and Eleanor (Olivia Williams) not at all the typical American married couple. The psalmist turned to God for companionship, but FDR turned to women to relieve his loneliness. The film is supposedly told from the viewpoint of Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley (Laura Linney), a distant cousin invited in by the President’s concerned (and domineering) mother to distract her son from his heavy burdens. Its setting is the estate of Mrs. Roosevelt, the President’s mother, to which FDR retreats from the turmoil of Washington whenever he can.
The film itself is not great historical drama, taking a few liberties with the facts (e.g. the King and Queen actually first met FDR in Washington and traveled with him to the estate). Indeed, it is more of a comedy of manners (the visiting British royals have trouble with American mores, especially the rightness of a picnic and eating—ugh! — hot dogs) plus a tale of illicit love told from the standpoint of Daisy, a spinster in her forties taking care of an invalid aunt. At first Daisy feels so insignificant that she might bore him, but FDR is not interested in intellectual companionship—Eleanor could satisfy that need. His test seems to be whether a prospective female friend shows any interest in his beloved stamp collection, a test which Daisy apparently passes.
Their story is of mild interest, although it is the one the publicists highlight, calling the visit of the new King and Queen of England as “background.” Actually the film proves that this is the central story, the characters of the royal couple being well rounded (and well played by Samuel West and Olivia Colman) —the details far more than Daisy could have known (the film is allegedly based on her letters and diary found under her bed after she died in the 90s). On the long drive up to the estate the King (nicknamed Bertie) wants to meet an American, but no one seems to want to meet him. In their quarters Queen Elizabeth feels insulted because the President did not remove a series of vintage framed cartoons mocking the British during the War of 1812. Their visit is not just a social one: embedded in it is their desire to convince the President to throw his support to the cause of supporting them when war breaks out again—it is 1939 and Hitler’s rebuilt German armies are eager to conquer Europe and invade the British Isles.
Their initial meeting is stiff, but at the formal dinner, when a stand holding a stack of chinaware collapses, the King relieves Mrs. Roosevelt’s embarrassment by joking about it. Later, when a servant drops a tray of food, his humor again helps the group pass over the faux pas. When he and the President are alone FDR enhances their rapport by speaking of their mutual handicaps, his polio (the poignancy of which is enhanced by the several scenes in which an aide carries him to his wheel chair or his car) and the King’s stuttering. Bertie puts away the notes concerning the support he hopes to obtain from the US government, and the two engage in heart to heart talk. The dreaded (by the Queen) picnic and hot dog ingesting turns out extremely well, with the platoon of photographers all snapping pictures of the King good naturedly even asking for a second one. The royal couple realizes that the President’s menu was not meant to embarrass them but to show to the country the King as a good sport.
The high stakes of this visit and the resulting close relationship that FDR was able to achieve for the two countries, so important for Great Britain’s survival, is thus far more important than the romantic dalliance, though this part of the story certainly humanizes the President. It does so as well for the women in his life, strong women who are gracious enough to “share” him—especially Eleanor, his wife, and Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) who was more than just his personal secretary. Director Roger Michelland playwright Richard Nelson’s film is short at just 94 minutes, but full of meaningful scenes of grace and humanity.
1. What do you think of the way in which FDR is portrayed? A more human person than the icon? What about his romantic entanglements?
2. How was the press apparently far different in those days? (As a boy then I knew nothing of his paralysis, nor did my father, a strong believer in him, ever mention this.)
3. How is Eleanor portrayed? How was her journalistic career perhaps a compensation for her lack of warmth in their marriage?
4. Were you surprised by the rounded-out portrayal of the royal couple? What stereotypes did they apparently hold of Americans? How is the treatment of Bertie’s stuttering in keeping with that in The King’s Speech?
5. What do you think of the way in which FDR reached out to him? How was the hot dog sequence a part of the President’s plan—very different from what the Queen feared?
6. Where do you see moments of grace in the film?