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By Phil Hall | December 8, 2012

When Bill Murray first appears as Franklin D. Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” it is easy to be chilled with dread – the star bears no physical resemblance to the celebrated president, nor does he make any attempt to emulate Roosevelt’s distinctive speech pattern. The lack of physical and vocal resemblance carries further with cast members Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt and Samuel West and Olivia Colman as Britain’s King George and Queen Elizabeth.

But as “Hyde Park on Hudson” unfurls, this absence of resemblance evaporates quickly. What emerges is a thoughtful drama that uses a historical backdrop to present an intelligent study of interpersonal dependencies.

Set in June 1939 at Roosevelt’s estate in upstate New York – actually, the estate of his domineering mother – the film centers on a visit by the British monarchs that is designed to seek American support for the looming war with Nazi Germany. Brought into this drama is Roosevelt’s cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney), who lives nearby in a difficult financial situation with her aunt. Roosevelt summons Daisy to serve as a confidant and, to her initial dismay, as a romantic companion. Daisy learns that the president’s marriage has devolved into a political formality – Eleanor Roosevelt is mostly focused on her political newspaper column and in her own intimate relation with a writer that the president flippantly refers to as a “she-man.”

When the king and queen arrive, they are initially dismayed and confused by the informal nature of the Roosevelt estate. The king warms to the lack of pretense, while the queen is less charmed by what she considers to be a hodgepodge environment. At the center of events is the indefatigable president, with his unapologetic preference for martinis and cigarettes and his extraordinary ability to bring out the best in both royalty and working-class people. And Daisy, who is quietly welcomed into the Roosevelt inner circle, slowly finds a new confidence in her role by the president’s side.

“Hyde Park on Hudson” achieves a rare balance of presenting Roosevelt as a man of virtue and vices. As depicted here, he was capable of casual insensitivity – especially in his failure to include Daisy at a state dinner honoring the visiting monarchs – but he was also capable of remarkable kindness, particularly in his successful efforts in relaxing the flustered King George, whose stammer prevents an easy flow of conversation. He is no white knight, to be certain, but a man whose greatness is never truly diluted by his lapses in behavior.

Murray’s performance provides the film with an unexpectedly strong emotional anchor. He brilliantly captures the physical trials of the polio-afflicted president, and his subtle expression and body language during the brief scenes where Roosevelt is physically carried by an aide between rooms are masterful. It is not a flashy performance, which makes it all the more fascinating because Murray effectively fuels the film with a low-key acting rather than excessive dramatic passion.

Indeed, Murray’s ability to do more with less stands in contrast with some of the cast – the somewhat overdone exchanges by West and Colman as the bickering British royalty threaten to derail the film’s personality. Linney is charming, as usual, although her character is slightly underwritten and her make-up and costuming is never truly flattering.

Director Roger Michell keeps the film moving at a crisp pace, and the film’s production values are highly impressive. There is even a surprisingly effective bit of CGI trickery that show’s the cruel impact of polio on the legs of Murray’s Roosevelt.

History books and connect-the-dots documentaries offer a vision of Roosevelt as a titan. “Hyde Park on Hudson” provides a more intimate picture of the flawed man behind the legend. It is a highly satisfying and effective production.

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