Who knew the fate of the free world might one day depend on a hotdog? I’m not talking about President Franklin D. Roosevelt (though he was a bit of a hotdog); I’m referring to the meal served King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their famous visit to America in July of 1939, when the nations solidified an alliance on the eve of WWII. Hyde Park on Hudson, which stars funnyman Bill Murray as the bespectacled commander-and-chief, is a starchy if mercifully brief comedy-of-manners, depicting that momentous event with the dramatic flimsiness of the aforementioned frank (again, not FDR).
Set entirely at the Roosevelt family estate in the pastoral New York countryside, the movie presents our 32nd president as a remorseless flatterer, a smarmy maestro with political disingenuousness coursing through his blue-blooded veins. If he’s tolerable at all, it’s because of Murray, who echoes Roosevelt’s iconic eccentricities—the ear-to-ear grin, the chewed-on cigarette holder, and the transatlantic accent—without ever resorting to caricature. In the best scene, Franklin consoles England’s stuttering monarch over cognac. “The people see us for who they want us to be”, he says while dragging his lifeless legs arduously across the room. The public never knew of his polio-induced paralysis, and Murray understands Roosevelt’s role as a symbolic giant, a man who couldn’t stand but stood-up for a nation.
Conversely, director Roger Mitchell and his team expend most of their efforts fussing with focal depths and artsy landscapes, while their movie, for all its aesthetic polish, stays quietly seated. The mansion is actually owned by Mrs. Sara Roosevelt (Elizabeth Colman), Franklin’s widowed mother and one of several women vying for his affection. The first lady, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), is domineering and jealous of her husband’s personal secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), who schedules his life like a series of play-dates. FDR’s distant cousin and mistress, Daisy Suckley, is constantly hanging around with sinus-headache medication. “He gets them this time of year,” she blithely observes. Laura Linney (who narrates) plays Margaret as repressed and spacey, a naïf alternating between floozy and nursemaid. The house comes off as an unconsciously misogynistic compound of Oedipal polygamy.
The plot’s centerpiece sequence is the King and Queen’s visit, which transpires like Gosford Park minus the trenchant classism and the absorbing mystery. (Is it wrong that I wished for a murder, so FDR could pull out a pipe and magnified glass and look for clues?) The real story here is the parallel between Frank and King Bertie (Samuel West). Both came from politically aristocratic families, had debilitating ailments, and were forced to negotiate major national crises. However, Margaret’s tale of girlish swooning is the filmmakers’ priority, and the two stories never work in tandem, especially since Murray’s Roosevelt can’t provide the necessary sinew. On the periphery, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) is whining about the lack of fine dining options to our constant annoyance.
Which brings us to the hotdog that changed the world. Historians often trace the Anglo-American coalition—which until the twentieth century was tenuous to say the least—back to that weekend, where an outdoor picnic and ballpark sausage with mustard stood for an unspoken diplomatic agreement. (No reigning British monarch had ever set foot on American soil before.) Hyde Park on Hudson, with its narrative incongruities and stuffy ensemble, is never the cinematic banquet it was meant to be. This period piece serves a measly dog.