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Bill Murray's New Deal: 'Hyde Park on Hudson'

The former "SNL" star takes on FDR

Director: Roger Michell

Rating: R. Running Time: 95 minutes
Stars: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman

An hour or so into Hyde Park on Hudson, during which the 1930s press corps happily ignores President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's physical disabilities as well as winks at his endless string of romantic dalliances, I kept imagining Bill Clinton sitting in the audience and doing a spit take with his Diet Coke.

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But then, there has never again been a political figure quite like FDR, and Bill Murray, putting to good use his rascally persona and decades of audience goodwill, easily paints a sympathetic portrait of a duplicitous yet somehow sincere man. Murray's FDR — he of the easy smile, often inscrutable motives and undeniable personal courage — dominates the film the way Roosevelt towered over American politics for a decade and a half. That's not always a good thing, because the central character of Hyde Park on Hudson is supposed to be FDR's sixth cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), a mousy, middle-age spinster who happens to live near Hyde Park, the Roosevelt estate above the Hudson River.

For reasons never quite made clear, the president summons Daisy to Hyde Park out of the blue and taps her to be his frequent companion and sometime lover. As Daisy, the ever-dependable Linney captures just right both the woman's sense of awe at finding herself seated at a center of global power — and her gnawing discomfort at the strange, seedy role she plays in the president's life.

Most of Hyde Park on Hudson is told from Daisy's point of view, but in the middle of the film she disappears almost completely. That's when director Roger Michell and writer Richard Nelson take a major detour to relate the story of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth's 1939 visit to Hyde Park. Yes, it's the same King George VI whose story won all those Oscars a couple of years back in The King's Speech, and to Samuel West falls the thankless job of filling Oscar-winner Colin Firth's satin slippers in the role.

West, as it turns out, is wonderful in the part, and in some ways George's relationship with Elizabeth (lovely Olivia Colman) is more fleshed out here than it was in The King's Speech. We get to spend quite some time with them in their Hyde Park guest room, listening with them through the thin walls as the president's messy domestic matters play themselves out in the middle of one particularly eventful night.

Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson

Courtesy of Focus Features

Bill Murray in an iconic pose stars as FDR in "Hyde Park on Hudson."

By far the film's most powerful scene occurs earlier that same night, as FDR and the king share some man-to-man time in the president's study. There they sit, face to face, two powerful men, one whose physical impairment keeps him keenly aware that he holds his position by default — and one whose disabilities have, in some ways, fueled his dogged pursuit and sometimes ruthless dispensation of power.

"This goddamned stutter," George blurts bitterly. FDR smiles wistfully and responds, "This goddamned polio."

FDR opens George's eyes in a way that makes us wonder why the king bothered spending all those years in speech therapy with Lionel Logue. He emerges from FDR's study his own man in a way he never was before, and we find ourselves believing such epiphanies are possible.

It's all very thrilling, and so we are just a tad deflated when Daisy turns up again, this time mooning over the realization that she is just one of FDR's stable of women. (I couldn't help but remember the dust-up over Mitt Romney's "binders of women," simultaneously marveling at how far we have come and wondering in which direction we are going.)

Linney speaks the final voice-over in Hyde Park on Hudson, in words presumably taken from Daisy's diaries. Her wrap-up rushes through the final years of FDR's life, assuring us that their relationship continued, as did the rest of the president's involvements. His virtual abandonment of one former lover after she became deathly ill is written off as a "personality flaw," and we are again reminded of how, even while leading public lives that inspire for generations, in the darkness of their darkest nights, even the mighty are fallen.

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