Hyde Park on Hudson

Bill Murray shines as FDR in a keenly observed look at the weekend King George VI came to visit.

Bill Murray as FDR? It takes a few minutes to get used to, but once he settles into the role of the 32nd president, the idiosyncratic comic actor does a wonderfully jaunty job in Hyde Park on Hudson, a seriocomic look at an eventful weekend at the chief executive's country estate as well as his unusual domestic arrangement. Reflecting a time when the intimate secrets of our leaders could truly be kept secure from the public, this Focus Features holiday release seems eminently promotable as a refined treat that's nonetheless palatable to a wide audience.

Although decorously staged and tidily written, the costume drama ventures waist-deep into vaguely queasy territory by exploring, however gingerly, Franklin Roosevelt's multiple menage that was hidden or ignored in plain sight under the roof he shared with his wife and mother.

Screenwriter Richard Nelson doesn't consistently find the precise register in which to address the president's indiscretions, especially in the narration provided by Margaret "Daisy" Suckley. A plain, intelligent spinster and sixth cousin of FDR, Daisy is surprised to be summoned to the family estate in Hyde Park, N.Y. In due course, she confides, "I helped him forget the weight of the world," which is one way of passing along the news that she is expected to pleasure the polio-stricken president, something his wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams, wonderful), is long done with.

Whether this was the role of the real Daisy, played self-effacingly with prim dignity and a tinge of bitterness by Laura Linney, remains questionable. But for dramatic purposes, she here joins another middle-aged confidante, Roosevelt's secretary and possible intimate, Marguerite "Missy" LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel), as well as Eleanor and her circle, whom FDR cheerfully calls "she-men." Before long, though, Daisy's position recedes to give way to the main event, the royal visit to Hyde Park by King George VI, played winningly by Samuel West, and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, essayed by Olivia Colman as a disapproving prune horrified by hot dogs on the menu at a picnic.

Under Roger Michell's astute and fluid directorial hand, the film has an oddly but appealingly off-center quality. But it would remain just a bonbon were it not for its moving central section when the president invites the king to join him in his study. Roosevelt liberally dispenses liquor as he shrewdly guides the conversation in a way that not only cements a personal friendship but also builds a useful political bridge and ratchets up George's morale in the bargain. "This goddamned stutter," laments the king at one moment. "What stutter?" asks FDR, before letting slip, "This goddamned polio." A revelatory exchange between men of comparable global stature but glaringly different experience, the episode is beautifully written, directed and performed.

Not as large or physically dominant as Roosevelt, Murray nonetheless grows into the role. One feels that, despite a world full of troubles, the man is at home and at ease, so accustomed to being in control that he never needs to throw his weight around. Murray captures FDR's wily side without overdoing it and brings him alive with humor, alertness, intelligence and a sense of confident composure in a performance that is both credible and very entertaining.

Opens: Friday, Dec. 7 (Focus Features)
Venues: Telluride, Toronto, New York film festivals
Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West, Olivia Colman
Director: Roger Michell
Rated R, 95 minutes