Roger Michell is a funny fellow. Not unlike Stephen Frears, he's one of those salt-of the earth Brits with few airs and graces. We had first met for 1999's Notting Hill, his biggest cinematic hit, and then for two films starring Daniel Craig in quick succession. While in The Mother (2003) we were first treated to the vision of the future 007's's magnificent torso, in Enduring Love (2004) we could see Craig could really act.
In a way, The King’s Speech is a prequel to our film
All films had strong source material. Richard Curtis delivered one of his funniest screenplays in Notting Hill, Hanif Kureishi reteamed with Michell after The Buddha of Suburbia for The Mother, and Ian McEwan even came out of the woodwork to promote Enduring Love.
Now with Hyde Park on Hudson Richard Nelson has adapted his own radio play focusing on Franklin D. Roosevelt for Michell. The impetus for the story was to tell of FDR's little-known fifth cousin and probable lover, the very private Daisy Suckley, whose letters were only discovered upon her death at age 100. The film also demonstrates how FDR conducted his grassroots diplomacy and basically became an ally with King George VI over a weekend at his family home at Hyde Park in upstate New York in June 1939 as the world was on the cusp of war.
“It's like a footnote in a thick history book with the word hot dog in it,” notes Michell, referring to the hotdog picnic FDR orchestrates to create a relaxed atmosphere during the royal visit. “I liked the idea of something which a small event which had such seismic repercussions. But all of Richard's work in the theatre is interesting [10 of Nelson's plays have been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company where Michell was resident director for 6 years] and really all his writing is interesting. Here he writes about the uneasy love-hate relationship between his country and my country and I find that really endlessly fascinating, as does he. It's a film about a supplicant coming to a big giant asking for help.”
For over 30 years, Nelson has lived not far from Hyde Park in Rhinebeck, where Daisy resided for 90 years. He first heard about her story there in the early 1990s when reading her diaries, which were later published into a book.
“I'm a playwright, not a screenwriter, but I could never figure out how to do this as a play because the story had a kind of fluidity and I couldn't find a structure to make it work,” he says, “so I wrote it as a radio play for the BBC instead.” Eventually, he sent it to Michell, who as the son of a British diplomat and someone who had always been fascinated by Roosevelt, became very excited. He remained excited even when The King's Speech came along.
“The King's Speech reared its beautiful head halfway through our process of making this story,” Mishell pronounces. “I don't think The King's Speech was even written when this radio play was broadcast. Then the film became the biggest success ever made anywhere! But we proceeded because we believed in the film and we wanted to make it. In a way, The King's Speech is a prequel to our film.”
It was essential, says Michell, to secure the services of Bill Murray as FDR. “I desperately needed somebody that would keep the film innocent in a way. I didn't want it to turn into the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story, or even the Bill Clinton story. I needed somebody who you would forgive for his sexual appetite or his sexual discretions, who had the charm of FDR, also the charisma and the enormous generosity of spirit to allow for this human frailty. I thought Bill was the man to do that and I really couldn't think of any other American actor of his age and stature who wouldn't bring a different saturnine quality to it.”
Laura Linney was an equally high priority for Daisy. “It's a tougher role because she's an observer, she's our portal into the film,” notes Michell. “She doesn't say a lot but she registers a lot and Laura is brilliant at doing that. I thought of her in terms of a Jane Austen heroine, a Jane Austen spinster, someone who was on the shelf at the beginning of the movie and is sexually inert. So then the sexual relationship between her and the president could have more impact, more poignancy and feel more accurate.”
Many, of course, like the historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who edited Daisy Suckley's papers, believe that the film is wrong regarding her relationship with FDR as he told The Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger.
“His relationship with her was an extremely old-fashioned, very decorous sort of 19th century — they wrote each other letters and may have kissed once, in a car on a hilltop [a bit more is implied in the movie]. It was the delight of her life to be the friend of Franklin Roosevelt.”
Henneberger continues: “Having read every word of the letters and diaries that the film is supposed to be based on, Ward says his impression is that she never had sex with anyone, and would be humiliated by such a coarse presentation of their connection.”
Linney had visited Hyde Park many times before being approached to make the film and was fascinated by the new developments regarding Daisy's letters so eagerly read them for the role.
“From the diaries and the letters it's hard to believe that something didn't happen, something, but we don't know what. Nothing is factually down on paper. So this is Richard Nelson's interoperation of what he read in the letters and in the diaries.
“I think there was some sexual attraction there,” she continues. “It's hard to believe there wasn't as he was so charismatic and loved women so much. But this wasn't an affair; this was a deep friendship that could not be replaced by anyone else. No one else could give him what Daisy gave him. No one could give him what Eleanor gave him. They got from each other things they couldn't find anywhere else.”
Hyde Park in the Hudson is cinemas from March 28.