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Half as long and twice as much fun as the self-important “Lincoln,’’ Roger Michell’s charming sex-and-politics comedy “Hyde Park on Hudson’’ is basically a frothy tabloid take on presidential history. And for my money, that’s a good thing in a season filled with puffed-up prestige pictures.
Anchored by a thoroughly delightful performance by Bill Murray, the film shows President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrestling with two problems as World War II looms in the spring of 1939.
The far weightier one is considerable sentiment against Great Britain by an American public that fears our World War I ally will drag the US into another costly worldwide conflict — one the president knows is absolutely necessary to stop Adolf Hitler.
Nicola DoveBill Murray puts FDR’s personal side on display as one corner of a love triangle with Laura Linney and Olivia Williams.At the same time, FDR — whose bemused wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), seems to prefer the company of journalist Lorena Hickok — has to deal with a sticky, not-at-all-public romantic situation involving his spinster fifth cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (a wonderful Laura Linney).
She’s the latest in a harem of mistresses that, at this point, reportedly includes his private secretary, Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel), and (the unseen but talked-about) Dorothy Schiff, at that time the married owner of the newspaper you’re reading.
Daisy, a dowdy poor relation who was recruited by FDR’s mother (Elizabeth Wilson) to provide distractions from the burdens of the presidency during her son’s frequent visits to the family estate in upstate New York, had no idea what she was getting into.
It’s not as if the press corps — which studiously ignored the fact that FDR was paralyzed from the waist down because of polio — were reporting on presidential peccadilloes in those far more discreet days.
The film keeps its distance, too, from the story’s seamier aspects. The camera pulls back behind a parked convertible in which the president has taken Daisy for a spin — just after FDR gently but firmly guides Daisy’s surprised but not unwilling hand into his lap so she can fulfill her patriotic duty.
According to Richard Nelson’s script — loosely based on Suckley’s diaries and letters, discovered after her death in 1991 — Daisy finally figured out just how randy her fifth cousin was as England’s King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) arrived for a casual weekend that June in Hyde Park, after more formal appearances in Washington and New York City.
The subject of the Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech’’ is young and self-conscious about his stutter, but in a private session, the much older president brilliantly sets him at ease with self-deprecating wit.
In the film’s best scene — a coup of physical acting by Murray — FDR disarms the nervous king by demonstrating just what an enormous struggle it is for him to move from his wheelchair to a desk chair unassisted.
The snobbish and gossipy queen, who is treated far less sympathetically than in “The King’s Speech,’’ is not so easily won over.
Elizabeth speculates to her husband whether Daisy — who her majesty judges “looks like a governess’’ — is the latest of her host’s lovers during a night when the royals are kept awake by a steady stream of comings and goings.
But Elizabeth — the mother of the current monarch — is especially horrified by FDR’s plans for a picnic at which the royals will be served plebeian hot dogs.
Meanwhile, the president himself has to put things right with the wised-up and very hurt Daisy, who has had the score explained to her by the more pragmatic Missy.
Will Daisy serve her country by turning up for the picnic? At least in the handsome-looking “Hyde Park in Hudson,’’ she not only does, but, at the president’s insistence, slathers mustard on an enormous wiener for his majesty.
History tells us this was one of the biggest public relations coups of FDR’s career, convincing the American people that the English were “like us’’ and deserving of support when World War II erupted just two months later.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that this symbolic gesture also turns out to be one of the funniest sight gags in any movie this year.
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