There is one scene in Hyde Park on Hudson where it’s apparent how sharp and layered Billy Murray’s portrayal of the 32nd President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt is. The film centers on the historic meeting of King George VI and the president at FDR’s titular compound — a culture clash that worried both parties to no end. After their first lengthy meal FDR takes Bertie into his study for another round of drinks. Roosevelt sits him down to talk about his recent appointment as the King of England and the potential for war overseas. Bertie stammers out his concerns aware that his country has lost faith in him. FDR is nothing but comforting while he lifts his polio-stricken legs out of a wheelchair and maneuvers across the room. “If I were your father I’d be proud of you ” he says with a grin.
Murray has always been a charmer dating as far back as his first season on Saturday Night Live and that demeanor makes him a perfect fit for America’s only four-term President. But Hyde Park on Hudson wastes the opportunity of hiring Murray for the gig which opts not to hone in on the FDR/Bertie relationship in favor of another angle: Roosevelt’s habit for mistresses.
Laura Linney plays Margaret Suckley a distant cousin of FDR’s in whom the sitting President randomly decides to take a fancy. He calls her up out of the blue and immediately the two start finding romance in each other’s company. A car ride out into the middle of a lavender field (and an impassioned sexual act) seals the deal. Margaret is infatuated with Franklin and the POTUS reciprocates.
And that’s about it. The film is based on diaries discovered later in history and as far as the events of the movie are concerned their scandalous relationship went fairly uninterrupted. Alluded to in Hyde Park on Hudson Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor had an understanding with her husband that allowed her to live on her own (and quite possibly have uncouth relationships herself) and for him to seek comfort with whomever he pleased.
The success of the other recent Bertie story The King’s Speech may be cause for the meandering focus of Hyde Park on Hudson never quite confident to dive deep into any of sides of Roosevelt. But the film is at its richest when the spotlight is on King George. Actor Samuel West lives in the shadow of Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning performance but he’s still the most interesting character in the film struggling to shake off his commanding wife and become his own man. But Hyde Park on Hudson always goes back to the Margaret/Franklin relationship a vapid core idea that only offers the filmmakers an opportunity to shoot dynamic driving scenes through scenic upstate New York.
There is little conflict in Hyde Park on Hudson the greatest hurdle being Bertie’s will-he/won’t-he-eat-a-hot-dog predicament which sends the Brits into a tizzy. After an hour (and approximately 18 stamp collecting conversations) into the Hyde Park on Hudson it’s apparent that the film is content with reenacting the events of the famous King and Queen visit and letting Murray’s vibrant performance do the talking. Linney’s intriguing mistress role fizzles out — it wasn’t a big deal for FDR back 1939 and it hasn’t gained any weight 70 years later.