When "Hyde Park on Hudson" played at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this year, Bill Murray was on hand to talk about playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In response to the inevitable question of what he thought of his character, Mr. Murray replied, "He's a big guy—he's on the dime." Fair enough. Actors are often unwilling, or unable, to articulate what they do when the lights go on and film rolls. In fact, Mr. Murray gives a fascinating performance, even though his FDR was conceived and written as a fairly small guy at the center of a small film that, for all its considerable charm, miniaturizes its hero in the process of humanizing him.
The time is 1939. While Hitler is poised to pounce on a terrified Europe, Roosevelt is finding what peace he can at his beloved family estate in upstate New York, overlooking the Hudson River. The first time we encounter him is from the viewpoint of Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant relative known as Daisy; FDR has summoned her from her home in nearby Rhinebeck to be an assistant. Daisy enters the president's study and slowly walks toward him. What she sees is her famous fifth cousin, seated at his desk. What we see is a combination of Bill Murray and FDR, which is a nice thing about the performance. It isn't mimicry, or the phenomenal transformation of Daniel Day-Lewis into Lincoln, but a more modest, impressionistic approach that's enjoyable on its own terms.
There is, of course, the unquenchable smile and the upthrust chin that denotes a Depression-defying optimism, along with the pince-nez glasses perched at an angle so close to horizontal that this Roosevelt sometimes seems focused on the ground in front of him. Instead of FDR's speech pattern, though, the patrician accent that was so much a part of his time and is so alien to ours, Mr. Murray uses his own voice with unforced warmth and, except for a few outbursts, calm rhythms that bespeak power through imperturbable ease.
This approach works best during a crucial meeting between FDR and young King George VI, who, with his queen, has come to Hyde Park to seek U.S. support for Britain in the war that will surely come. The king, Bertie (excellent work by Samuel West), is an interesting variant of the monarch we met in "The King's Speech." He's afflicted by a stutter, though not so acutely here, and by self-doubt that is addressed by a touching scene—a sentimental invention, but an entertaining one—in which Roosevelt reassures his guest, as the fond father Bertie never had, that he will be a fine king, and opens up the subject of the stutter, as well as the polio that has crippled FDR's legs, by way of emphasizing that their respective limitations are less important than what people want and need them to be.
"Hyde Park on Hudson," which was directed by Roger Michell from a screenplay by Richard Nelson, invents freely and for the most part successfully on the theme of the king and the president forging a friendship—buddy-bonding at the highest level—that foreshadows their nations' wartime alliance. Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) makes American friends less readily. She is deeply dubious at first about how the royal couple has been received, whether they're being ridiculed and, especially, whether there's hidden social or political significance in a hot dog lunch that's been scheduled for their delectation. (The lunch actually took place, and sometimes, as the movie's royals conclude, a hot dog is only a hot dog.)
Unfortunately, the film's main concern isn't Anglo-American relations, but Roosevelt's relations, sexual and otherwise, with the women who surround him, and compete for his affection, or at least his attention. They include his wife, Eleanor, who's played sharp-wittedly by Olivia Williams (watch her casually egalitarian and cheerfully self-ironic curtsy to the queen); his formidably bossy mother (Elizabeth Wilson); his private secretary Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel) and, especially in Mr. Nelson's take on our 32nd president, Daisy Suckley, for whom the whole film is a belated coming-of-age story coupled with an education in what cads men of vast power can be.
None of this was intended as a takedown, or as Oliver Stone-style revisionism of a towering public figure. Stories of Roosevelt and his fondness for women abound. The film, as earnest as it is ill-advised, hangs a speculative drama on one of them. And Ms. Linney is certainly engaging in the role. She brings intelligence and graceful intensity to every character she plays; the dowdy but somehow radiant Daisy is no exception. Yet this is 1939, for goodness' sake, a fateful year in the history of the world when FDR represents the free world's best hope, and here we are learning more than we need to know about his seductive ways, his casual misogyny and what he did with Daisy while they were listening to "Moonlight Serenade" in his convertible in the middle of a field of flowers. At moments like that, the big guy on the dime could fit on a tarnished penny.
'Rust and Bone'
Why are certain films less than the sum of their appealing parts? Before I tackle that question in the context of "Rust and Bone," let me make a case for the strong appeal of Jacques Audiard's sharp-edged, French-language fable about two damaged people who find each other at the nadir of their lives.
Marion Cotillard is Steph, who loses both legs above the knees in a terrible accident at the oceanarium where she worked as an orca trainer. Matthias Schoenaerts is Ali, a single father and chronic loser who's doing what he can to hold his life together by working as a bouncer, a security guard and a contestant in brutal, bare-knuckles boxing matches. He's splendid in the role, a sort of noble—though often ignoble—savage who might be civilized by the right woman in the right circumstances. (At times Mr. Schoenaerts reminded me of Ryan Gosling.) She's always splendid, a star of seemingly effortless distinction whose appeal is undiminished by the bleakness that we know will recede when Steph and Ali, in keeping with a time-tested trope, give each other new leases on life.
"Rust and Bone," which was adapted for the screen by the director and Thomas Bidegain from a story by Craig Davidson, is commendable for its no-nonsense attitude toward disability. Thanks to the marvels of digital imagery, Steph is visibly, indeed graphically, a bilateral amputee. And thanks to Ali's epic obtuseness, sentimentality is out of the question. Whatever the state of her legs, he's up for sex whenever time permits. Then why, getting back to that question, is the movie more intriguing than affecting? One reason is its surfeit of dramatic parallels and devices, the last of which sinks beneath shamelessness into bathos. The main problem, though, is what has become a sort of digital paradox.
In recent years computer-generated imagery has given filmmakers the freedom to do pretty much anything they want to do. Amputate legs? That's easy; write a computer program and they're gone. It doesn't mean the results will move us, though. Quite the contrary; the more remarkable the digital wizardry, the more vivid the reminder that we're in a wizard's realm. "What did you do with my legs?" Steph cries out when she discovers what we can plainly see. It's a new version of the moment in the 1942 drama "King's Row" when Ronald Reagan's character cries out "Where's the rest of me?" The difference is that 70 years ago, audiences knew that loss of limbs would be simulated somewhat clumsily, and accepted the simulation as part of the bargain of suspending disbelief. "Rust and Bone" takes the opposite tack. Far from asking our indulgence, this new film gives us one startling shot after another in which the rest of its heroine is clearly not there. It's impressive, to be sure, but also distracting, as seeing and believing are sliced asunder..
A stirring version of the Jane Austen novel, directed by Roger Michell. The heroine, Anne Elliot (Amanda Root), burns with love she can't reveal for a young naval officer she once foolishly rejected. Anne is a great spirit struggling to soar. "I have traveled so little," she tells her eventually adoring seafarer, "every fresh place is of interest to me." For those who love to travel back into timeless literature via the movies, there's no fresher place than this film, originally made for British TV and adapted by Nick Dear.
'Tis always the season, but especially now, to revisit this dark and now-classic reworking of the Dickens tale. Bill Murray is funny beyond words, though he has plenty of them, as Frank Cross, the hateful TV executive who gets his comedownance from spirited spirits dominated by the Ghost of Christmas Present, an exuberantly combative pink fairy played by Carol Kane. The extraordinary cast includes Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Robert Mitchum, and Alfre Woodard. Richard Donner directed from a script by Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue.
'A Prophet' (2009)
Jacques Audiard's French- and Arabic-language film, as masterly as it is harrowing, stretches the concept of entertainment by taking us into the brutish world of a French prison—for 150 minutes—and into the seizing mind of Malik, a young Muslim prisoner played by Tahar Rahim. I've never seen a performance like Mr. Rahim's, or a character like Malik, who starts out as a frightened, illiterate kid, and finally prevails over his aging Italian mentor, protector and chief rival, a fellow prisoner played brilliantly by Niels Arestrup. Well worth the modest price to buy on Amazon, or rent on iTunes.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this article incorrectly showed the DVD cover of the 2007 film version of "Persuasion," rather than the 1995 version.