Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The King's Speech

"Crossing Your Threshold"
"Let's Take it from the Top: 'In Our Darkest Hour...'"

One of my favorite observations from Jerry Seinfeld was his remark that more people are scared of public-speaking than of death: "In other words, more people would rather be IN the coffin, than delivering the eulogy..."

In The King's Speech, this year's Oscar-bait from The Weinstein Company, King George VI (Colin Firth, spot on, really) would rather be dead than speak in public.  It's too bad, then, that his father, George V (Michael Gambon) beats him to the choired invisibule, and the next in succession, Edward (Guy Pearce, in an extraordinarily adroit performance) is too much of a self-absorbed ponce to sacrifice "the woman he loves" for such a small thing as the welfare of all of Brittannia.

George VI, or Albert, the Duke of York (as he is dubbed before coronation), has a persistent stutter, and a concurrent inferiority complex, given his heightened awareness of his condition and his responsibility—director Tom Hooper makes it clear in his direction and editing choices that we are constantly aware of his audiences' reactions to his stammerings, faults and failings, even the portraits of his forebears stare in frozen, condescending judgement.*  It is up to his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, bi-polarly different than her roles for Hubby Burton and Harry Potter)—"Call me 'Liz'" she sweetly says at one point late in the movie—wants to fix the problem, not because her husband is the man who could be King, but because the underlying psychological whipping he imposes on himself is making him miserable.  He doesn't even have the wherewithal to blurt out a bedtime story to his two adoring princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.

With a capricious older brother and an ailing father-king, he is not the most confidence-inspiring potential potentate who can, as his father bellows "stand between us, the jack-boots and the proletarian abyss."  And given that the position is more public than ever, what with the King needing to adress his subjects via radio, the air of confidence is more important than ever, and Albert's failings as such are even more readily apparent in the Theater of the Mind.  Not only is the Empire shrinking for the Royals, but the world is, too, and their enemy's reach is the range of a V-2 rocket.

Presentation is all now, sometimes even more than the message.  During the viewing of a newsreel, the Royal Family gets a glimpse of the Player on the Other side, Adolf Hitler at the Nuremburg Rally.  "What's he saying, papa?" asks a daughter. 

"I don't know," replies the envious Albert.  "But he says it rather well."

What do the simple folks do, when they have to carry the burdens of the entire Nation on their backs without hesitancy, and with grace.  The short answer is, they don't—the situation is somewhat unique.

Enter Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), full-time vocal coach, hopeful actor...Australian.  He is visited by one "Mrs. Johnson"—the future Queen-Mum—to enquire about services, all the royal outlets proving inefficient, taxing and embarrassing for AlbertLogue has no idea who he's really dealing with—in all senses—explaining that his methods are "unorthodox and unusual."

"Not my favorite words," she sighs.

This is a cracklingly well-done film, subtle and efficient and literate—the script (by David Seidler) leading down as many paths as Logue has techniques, but the most interesting aspect is how the two men, Lionel and Albert (who Logue insists on calling "Bertie" to allow mutual approachability) must rise and lower each other to the occassion, Logue relying on his actor's discipline to gain respect, while Albert uses Logue to gain insight to the common man, essential to his tutelage.  And the actors are terrific, not only the ones mentioned, but a small delegation of familiar faces maximizing their small roles.  Derek Jacobi makes an early appearance, Anthony Andrews appears as P.M. Stanley Baldwin, Claire Bloom as Queen Mary, and Timothy Spall, doing a fair turn as Winston Churchill.  It culminates in a moving sequence as the new King must make a radio address to reassure the public after the declaration of war on Germany.  Incongruously set to the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, George VI, alone, with his coach conducting, must pick his way through his speech, every syllable a struggle to maintain control—the music behind him halting and building.  I tell ya, I dropped tears, it's an extroardinary last act to an extraordinary movie.

Now...the rating.  The King's Speech is rated "R" (in the United States) for the silliest of reasons—a short sequence where Logue badgers Albert into cursing like a sailor, including a string of "F"-bombs that kept it from achieving the lighter "PG-13," although the film really credits an ever lighter "PG."  Don't be put off by the prigs of the Ratings Board.  This is a fine, fine film.

The King's Speech is a Full-Price Ticket. 

* ...but in a style not as annoying as his work on the HBO series "John Adams," and less conventional than his work on The Damned United.

Post-Oscar Bashing: Best Picture? Nah. Not in that gang of 10. But a safe, respectable choice. You can't complain about the script or the performances (I could about director Hooper's win, but as was clear in his acceptance speech, without Hooper—and his Mum—there would have been no film, and the scipt was certainly worthy). But, ultimately, it's the Best Picture Harvey Weinstein could buy...as has been the case before. Still. Great film. But not Best Picture...not with 127 Hours, True Grit, Toy Story 3 in the running.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Gah, I keep reading reviews of this one even though I've yet to see and even though it's the film I want to see most of 2010 so I'm probably building myself up...but ah, what can I say? I only recently read a bad review of it which made me worried, but this puts me back in good faith.

PS. HBC recently noted that she's completely stunned about the awards' attention she's getting because she doesn't see anything interesting at all about the performance. Seeing that's she's so candid I figure that wasn't just false modesty on her part. Does the performance seem *awards' worthy* to you?

Yojimbo_5 said...

No (regarding HBC). She's perfectly competent and pleasant and does everything right...and makes a lot of a very well-written script (and facially, seems to evoke The elder Queen Mum).

But it's not her in "full-flower," acting up a storm, or bringing "real" qualities to "unreal" characters.

And, like you, I avoided it for awhile...life has been getting in the way, so I suppose I built up expectations, causing a sort of mild cynicism going in...but the proof is in the film, and I found it quite good, moving, subtley accomplished, and certainly worthy of "a Full-Price Ticket." And Firth and Rush are certainly awards-"worthy," Firth being especially so (I also found Pearce really good, but I've rarely seen him not so—Rules of Engagement coming to mind).