With the possible exception of Robert Downey Jr., who lasted just one season on Saturday Night Live, no alumni of that perennially popular late-night sketch show has earned a larger reputation as an actor than Bill Murray. In Roger Michell’s highly enjoyable Hyde Park on Hudson, Murray surprises us yet again with his remarkable talent.
The movie tells the tale of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Murray) hosting the newly crowned King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), at the Roosevelt family home during the royal couple’s first visit to the United States. The polio-stricken president has kept his medical condition a secret from the world at large, and they bond over the fact that Bertie, as the king is known to intimates, suffers from a stutter -- a historical fact those who have seen The King’s Speech are already quite familiar with.
As the two powerful figures try to lay the groundwork for an alliance between their countries on the eve of World War II, FDR is drawn into a relationship with Daisy (Laura Linney), a distant cousin who becomes one of the few people with whom he can share his thoughts and feelings. While the relationship between those two becomes more complicated, the president attempts to orchestrate a public display of the new bond between himself and the British monarch by getting the latter to be photographed eating a hot dog.
Richard Nelson’s script for the film might be short on drama, but it’s long on character. As written, FDR is a man who rose to power in part because he’s preternaturally able to make others feel comfortable even when he himself is ill at ease. That’s a rich contradiction for any actor, but Murray is a particularly inspired choice for the part. He’s a gifted performer whose early comedies connected with audiences because he was able to make you feel -- with a sly gaze or a ridiculous twist of a line delivery -- like you were in on the joke, and he exploits that conspiratorial charm to both comic and dramatic gold throughout Hyde Park on Hudson. There’s a showcase scene about halfway through the movie in which FDR and Bertie are alone together for the first time and finally able to talk one-on-one, and it’s a riveting pas de deux of acting. You really feel like a fly on the wall overhearing what it sounds like when the most influential people in the world try to make personal connections.
For a film that draws such believable portraits of various relationships, it’s surprising to realize how extraneous the storyline involving Daisy is. If she was supposed to be the audience surrogate for this material she’s entirely unnecessary, because Murray’s take on FDR assumes that role. On the other hand, if Daisy exists to spotlight the president’s dark side, that seems like too much time devoted to something that, in the larger context of history, doesn’t seem egregiously bad.
Roger Michell had already shown a deft touch for light comedy (Notting Hill) and drama (Changing Lanes) when he combined the two beautifully in Venus -- a picture that snared Peter O’Toole an Oscar nomination. Here, his powers are again at full force; we know the main characters in this movie inside and out, and when you realize how the film has made such towering historical figures into recognizable, flawed, and likable people, you can appreciate what he, his cast, and his screenwriter have accomplished. Like the men at the center of the story, Hyde Park on Hudson isn’t perfect, but you don’t mind spending time with it.