There’s an extraordinary scene about two-thirds of the way through Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson, in which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and King George VI of England (Samuel West) retire for the evening to FDR’s study, for a drink and chat. Tensions and pressure are high; George and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, are visiting Roosevelt’s upstate New York getaway, and no one is all that excited about the trip. But the King must implore the President for support in England’s war against the Nazis. So in that quiet room that summer night in 1939, they drink and they talk, and they begin to let their guards down. These two men of tremendous power and tremendous insecurity open up to each other, and the writing is so eloquent, the direction so gentle, and the playing so sensitive that the scene becomes utterly enthralling.
These were more than mere mortals, FDR and King George and their wives, but the major accomplishment of Michell’s film is how it humanizes these lions, making them real and flawed individuals. Some of that work was done for the second man in The King’s Speech, of which Hyde Park on Hudson is something of an unofficial sequel (that film’s success certainly enabled this one getting made). But FDR hasn’t before had this kind of treatment; he’s seldom seen with much more depth than his guest shot in Annie, and even something like Sunrise at Campobello was close enough to his presidency to ensure reverential treatment.
That is not the approach here — indeed, our window into the tale is Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney) a fifth cousin who lived near the upstate home, originally a friend to help him “forget the weight of the world,” but later a mistress and companion. The women close to him, Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and personal secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) seem to know what’s going on, and there’s a thick, unspoken tension in their interactions, but the President and First Lady’s relationship is, well, complex. As those often are.
This is all handled in a fairly straightforward fashion, free of much sensationalism — their first physical encounter is shown, sort of (frame lines are key), which allows us to stop seeing FDR as “the president” and start seeing him as a man, much as Margaret does. Murray, it turns out, is a splendid choice for the role; it’s a spirited, energetic piece of work that doesn’t get too hung up on impersonation (a cigarette holder here, a toothy smile there), focusing instead on his warmth and humor. The entire film is quite funny, in fact, nothing like the sort of stuffy period piece it’s dressed up as (though, for what it’s worth, the costumes and cinematography are gorgeous). The screenplay by Richard Nelson is quite witty on its own, but the dialogue is frequently bolstered by the well-timed awkward pauses and richly dramatized culture clashes; when discussing the menu for the weekend picnic, King George can barely choke out the words “hot dogs,” and it’s not just because of his stutter.
Murray’s Rushmore co-star Williams is perfectly cast as Eleanor, Marvel reveals some compelling layers to the faithful secretary character, and both West as George and Olivia Colman as Elizabeth rather effortlessly dismiss our memories of Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter. Linney sort of disappears into her scenes — as it should be, as the character does — but makes the most of her quiet moments alone; it’s a modest performance, but a sublime one. Her interactions with Roosevelt, the way she looks at him, drive home Hyde Park on Hudson’s timeliness (beyond the obvious parallels, like FRD’s admonishment that “If private enterprise will not provide jobs, government will take up the slack”): she makes very personal that most elusive and inexplicable of factors, a “presidential quality.” Roosevelt had it, and it was both his blessing and his curse.
Hyde Park on Hudson is out today in limited release.