When designing high school history textbooks, publishers often incorporate small, colorful boxes filled with “Did you know?”-style trivia about the people and places relevant to the material at hand, so that the otherwise monotonous, dense reading doesn’t become overly tedious for the student. The new FDR film “Hyde Park on the Hudson” feels like the product of screenwriter Richard Nelson adapting one such box into an entire feature.
If “Hyde Park on the Hudson” were indeed a box of “Lesser Known Facts About President Roosevelt” in a textbook, it would read as follows:
- In addition to his well-documented affair with secretary Lucy Mercer, Roosevelt also pursued an extramarital relationship with a distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, while in office.
- One of the most significant building-blocks in the United States and England’s alliance during World War II was a casual weekend that Roosevelt and King George spent together in June 1939 at Roosevelt’s family mansion in upstate New York.
These two relatively little-known pieces of information are mildly interesting to consider within the context of Roosevelt’s presidency, but they are hardly substantive enough to fuel an entire movie — at least not the one that screenwriter Nelson and director Roger Mitchell have made.
The fling between FDR (Bill Murray) and Daisy (Laura Linney), which dominates the first act of “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” plays like a soap opera on tranquilizers. FDR calls for Daisy to come to his mansion, presumably with the intention of hanky-panky, and they develop a bond, joking and driving around the country locale. She gives him a handjob in what is ostensibly the climactic moment of the relationship (no pun intended) and the sole surprising moment in the film. It’s really that simple; Daisy is barely seen again until the very end of “Hyde Park on the Hudson.”
The rest of the film focuses on King George (Samuel West) and wife Elizabeth’s (Olivia Colman) visit to the mansion, and is nearly as pulseless as the Daisy story. The biggest source of dramatic tension in this thread is Elizabeth’s objection to George’s intention to eat a hot dog (food not fit for royalty, she argues) at the planned picnic — riveting, right? But there is one great scene: a late night man-to-man in which FDR speaks to the stuttering George (who you may remember from “The King’s Speech”) about how to project strength as a leader. This moment, driven by Murray and West’s credible rapport, is enough to convince the audience that the meeting was significant to Anglo-American relations.
There is reason to believe that Murray’s portrayal of FDR, which is the most reserved version of the President I’ve ever seen, would have been a triumph had it belonged to a more ambitious movie. The actor is able to convey that Roosevelt’s life experiences, primarily his debilitating polio and his ultimately sexless marriage with Eleanor, weighed heavily on who he was. “Hyde Park on the Hudson” shows the viewer little of FDR operating in an executive capacity, but Murray exudes a distinctive demeanor that feels right for the President.
Even though the two films’ aims couldn’t be more different, “Hyde Park on the Hudson” will undoubtedly be compared to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by virtue of the fact that both films, released within a month of one another, provide behind-the-scenes looks at the lives of beloved American presidents. Mentioning them in the same sentence only makes “Hyde Park on the Hudson” seem slighter and less significant; never once did I recall the factoid boxes in my high school textbooks when watching Spielberg’s film.