Forgive the Oscar prognosticating, but this year's best actor field is a crowded one (and the Academy may as well engrave "Daniel Day-Lewis" on the statuette right now). Yet it would be a shame if Bill Murray's performance as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the charming and wistful Hyde Park on Hudson gets overlooked.
A deceptively subtle portrayal in which the mostly deadpan comic star disappears beneath the pince-nez and the snappy brim of a presidential fedora, Murray offers a fascinating glimpse into a complex and charismatic figure during a pivotal weekend in June 1939, when Roosevelt and the first lady (a stellar Olivia Williams) played hosts to the British royals. King George VI (Samuel West) - yes, the stuttering monarch made famous again in The King's Speech - and his wife, the Queen Consort Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), are motorcading through the rolling green of Dutchess County, N.Y., en route to the country getaway of the 32d president. War with Hitler is imminent, and the king is on a mission to get FDR on England's side.
Hyde Park on Hudson, nimbly directed by Roger Michell, offers more than just an intriguing historic footnote, however. The movie aches with heartbreak and longing, orbiting as it does around one Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant cousin of the president. This shy and socially awkward woman lives with her frail aunt (Eleanor Bron) not far from Roosevelt's Hyde Park hideout. The film follows her treacherous tumble into an affair with the commander in chief, who's hobbled by polio and looking for an escape from the daunting worries of the Great Depression, of crises foreign and domestic.
"He said I helped him forget the weight of the world," Linney's Margaret voice-overs - a narration based on a wealth of private journals Suckley poured her soul into, and that went undiscovered until her death. With Eleanor Roosevelt pretty much out of the picture (she made no secrets about being a lesbian), a romantic liaison with the president was not the scandal it might have been. Franklin and Margaret were discreet, the press corps honored the president's privacy - a protective pack of camera-snapping, notebook-flapping newshounds - and there were far more important matters to convey to the nation.