Adams on Reel Women: Laura Linney and the fascinating Miss Daisy of ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’
Photo: Focus Feature
When I first saw Laura Linney as Margaret "Daisy" Suckley in "Hyde Park on Hudson," I thought, this is a performance I have to rally behind because of its subtle beauty and deeply felt realization. OK, it's really because I worried that film critics would dismiss Daisy because she wasn't "alpha" enough for the 21st century. When the New York Times' critic Manohla Dargis fell into that trap last week, it didn't surprise me. Dargis wrote: "Ms. Linney makes a show out of Daisy's awkwardness; to watch her pantomime of a wallflower is to watch an actress struggling to remain true to a character without fading in turn (Bette Davis would have made this mouse roar)."
Excuse me, this mouse is not supposed to roar. She is supposed to squeak and skitter. As Daisy, a fifth cousin turned intimate companion to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray), Linney plays a faded daisy. She shows every wrinkle in a face that would have been plainly pretty but has passed its marital sell-by date. Linney knows what she's doing, and she doesn't give Daisy any more power than she would have had at the time.
"When I cast Laura, it opened the film for me," director Roger Michell told me recently. "I nearly made a mistake casting an actress a lot younger. That would have been a distasteful version of 'Lost in Translation.' ... In 1939, Linney's character is 42. She feels like life has shut down. She's given this miraculous spring in her step in this odd intimacy that developed between her and the president. Laura is someone who can play so much off her face. She doesn't have a lot of dialogue in the film."
Apparently, this is what closed down the film for the NYT's Dargis: "Daisy's relationship with Franklin provides the almost somnolent way into the story, but it soon becomes part of the background noise for a visit from the king and queen of England." Dargis later writes, "Suckley and Roosevelt's relationship has added layers to the historical record, yet it's mainly important for what it says about him. That sounds cruel, but the film does nothing to right that impression."
This is a case of a critic criticizing a film for what it is not -- like a "Lincoln" biopic that skirts his intimate relations. Nor is it the stalwart-spouse storyline portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter in "The King's Speech." Rather, let's embrace what screenwriter Richard Nelson has written: a fascinating, intimate story of the circle of women that enabled a significant leader to get out on the world stage despite a physical handicap and a wandering eye. "This movie is a snapshot of 24 hours. The stuff that doesn't make it in during those 24 hours isn't in the movie," said Olivia Williams, who plays FDR's wife, Eleanor.
"Hyde Park on Hudson" may require a bit of a hush and a listen to realize the complexity of the relationships it portrays beneath its bright and sprightly surface. When Daisy enters FDR's world, she feels the weight of being a poor relation in the court of the Sun King. She is outmaneuvered at every point. And yet her love, her sensitivity, her sense of a spinster's rebirth at an unexpected opportunity that takes her out of the musty cedar closet of her life and puts her in the center of the president's household -- all are real.