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Bill Murray shines as FDR in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’

KENNETH TURAN, Los Angeles Times

Publication: The Day

Published December 14. 2012 4:00AM

When Ronald Reagan was asked, as he periodically was, whether his experience as an actor had helped him to be an effective president, he'd genially respond that he didn't know how anybody could do the job without having been an actor. He was, Reagan biographer Lou Cannon believes, kidding on the square, and "Hyde Park on Hudson" amusingly demonstrates how important performance was for another head of state.

Though Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln is the presidential presentation of the moment, Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt is well worth paying attention to. His FDR beautifully conveys the notion of the chief executive as seductive star performer, a man who counted on his ever-appealing charm to get his way in matters both personal and professional.

As written by playwright Richard Nelson and directed by the expert Roger Michell, "Hyde Park" tries to blend two quite different stories linked by Roosevelt's magnetic personality and the vacation White House he maintained on his family's estate at Hyde Park on Hudson in upstate New York.

The first story involves FDR's close relationship with his distant cousin Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, played by Laura Linney. The second focuses on a crucial state visit paid to Hyde Park in June 1939 by England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

This combination has its problematic moments, but you rarely notice them because of the great and diverting skill with which "Hyde Park" has been made.

Though his name is not necessarily on everyone's lips, Michell has made some of the most entertaining British films of the past 20 years, including "Notting Hill," "Venus" and "Persuasion." He makes literate films, small-scale chamber pieces with a sly sense of humor that invariably feature fine performances by accomplished actors.

Though he has competition, especially from the folks playing the visiting royals, Murray is very much the reason to see "Hyde Park." His Roosevelt comes alive in both serious and frivolous moments in a convincing way, dominating every room he's in with his chipper personality and cat-who's-eaten-the-canary grin despite the polio that has denied him the use of his legs.

For Daisy Suckley, Roosevelt is a distant star she never hoped to approach. But when FDR's mother was searching around for someone family and local to help the great man "take his mind off his work," it was Daisy who got the call.

Daisy fears she will be too boring for FDR, but thrilling is not what he is looking for in a companion. Rather, he seeks someone he can relax with and, as she discovers, help him to "forget the weight of the world."

The evidence of Daisy's close connection with FDR came from a cache of letters and a diary found in a small suitcase under her bed after she died in 1991 at age 99. Historians differ about whether the relationship had a sexual nature - the film says it did - but either way, this chunk of the movie is not without its difficulties, and they cluster around Daisy.

Though Daisy's awe of FDR and her worshipful demeanor toward the great man may be true to life, these sentiments hang around for too long to be dramatically involving. Even Linney's great gifts as an actress and some twists in the plot aren't enough to make this character compelling.

Helping to take up the slack are the other women in the president's life, all elegantly played and each one livelier than the next. Queen bee, naturally, is the president's domineering mother, Sara (Elizabeth Wilson), but then comes his energetic wife, Eleanor (the always welcome Olivia Williams), and his savvy private secretary, Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel).

Still, even with all this going on, "Hyde Park on Hudson" welcomes the arrival of King George VI and his queen (the same couple who were the focus of "The King's Speech"). It's not just that Samuel West (whose film credits go all the way back to "Howards End") as Bertie and Olivia Colman as Elizabeth are such practiced performers, it's that the stakes in this particular encounter are considerably higher than the strictly personal ones of the Daisy relationship.

For everyone is aware that though the mood in America is isolationist, Britain is in desperate need of aid as war looms in Europe because, as FDR says, "if we don't help, there won't be an England for him to be the king of."

Alongside this political drama is set a comedy of ritual, protocol and manners, as the Americans get deliciously worked up about how to behave in the presence of royalty, and the royals are increasingly aghast at their ability to survive being served such culinary exotica as the ominous-sounding "hot dogs." It's a classic light-farce situation, and these are just the people to do it right.

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