Sometimes one great performance makes a film worth seeing. That is precisely the case with Bill Murray’s interpretation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson. This handsome but leisurely film humanizes world figures like F.D.R. and the King and Queen of England, who visit the President at his upstate New York home to gain support for the war effort in the summer of 1939. Like Peter Morgan, The Queen and Frost/Nixon scribe, writer Richard Nelson imagines what went on behind closed doors in a credible and amusing manner. Is it true? We may never know, but it makes for entertaining fodder and has a definite ring of truth.
The story of Roosevelt’s distant (fifth) cousin Daisy Suckley is a bit more curious and not as fully fleshed-out. What little is known about her relationship with the President is drawn from fragmented diaries and intimate letters that were discovered under her bed when she died at the age of 100. The notion that F.D.R. had not just a fondness for her but an actual liaison, while carrying on with his secretary Missy LeHand, is interesting and, at times, unsettling. A scene with Daisy and the President in his open roadster is disconcerting, to say the least. Linney is very good as the unworldly woman through whose eyes much of the story unfolds.
Still, it’s Murray’s performance that sells the picture. He doesn’t engage in an outright imitation but affects just enough of Roosevelt’s speech and mannerisms (showing his teeth, emphasizing his words) to persuade us. After a while you forget you’re watching Bill Murray, which is no small feat. We even get to see first-hand how agonizingly tough it was for Roosevelt to move in and out of his chair. This tells us more about his stamina and will-power than pages of dialogue possibly could. We also see ample evidence of the President’s famous charm. (During a private meeting with the nervous King George VI the older, more confident F.D.R. puts “Bertie” at ease and is candid with him. “Damn this stutter,” Bertie mutters after one frustrating attempt to express himself. F.D.R. smiles and says, “Damn this polio.”)
Roger Michell’s direction is sure-handed, even if the narrative tends to wander more than it should. Olivia Colman and Samuel West are very good as the queen and king, and Olivia Williams offers a sly performance as Eleanor Roosevelt, who reluctantly observes protocol with her royal visitors, not fully bowing or curtsying but indicating a half-way gesture. Moments like that bring what we think of as history to life in an immediate and relatable manner. That’s what makes Hyde Park on Hudson so appealing.