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Movie Review: 'The King's Speech'
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush topline a solid-but-limited prestige pic
My grandmother is well into her 90s, but scarcely a week goes by when her schedule isn't packed with symphony concerts, plays and trips to the cinema and scarcely a phone conversation goes by where I don't hang up convinced that her social life is vastly fuller than my own.
We also never speak without her asking me if there are any movies out that she should see. It's been a while since I've been able to give her anything good to seek out. It's not that I haven't liked movies this year, but I wouldn't immediately think to subject my Bubie to the thick mountain accents of "Winter's Bone" or the technobabble of "The Social Network" or much of anything in "Let Me In."
But when I called her for Thanksgiving -- confusing, since she's Canadian and doesn't celebrate our oddball November Thanksgiving unless she's in The States with us -- I eagerly anticipated her request for recommendations, knowing that I had an answer.
"Go see 'The King's Speech,'" I told her, without hesitation.
It's handsome. It's clever. It's well-acted. And the entire darned movie is about clarity of diction, which is a valuable attribute if you happen to be selectively hard of hearing.
The Weinstein Company is welcome to use my pull quote: "The King's Speech" -- Finally a movie you can suggest to grandma. [Alternatively, "'The King's Speech' - A grand movie for grandparents."]
I wouldn't shy away from recommending "King's Speech" to my parents or to my 20-something brother, but I confess that with each youthful generation, my recommendation would become a little less enthusiastic.
The Weinstein Company is welcome to use my pull quote: "The King's Speech" -- Perfect for the whole family, albeit perfection in inverse proportion to age."
All of the nice things I said about "The King's Speech" just four paragraphs ago are true. Also true? "The King's Speech" is old-fashioned, a little aesthetically claustrophobic and occasionally intellectually superficial in ways that left me yearning for more depth from screenwriter David Seidler and director Tom Hooper. Some of those things that are deficiencies in my book will contribute to making "The King's Speech" an Oscar front-runner and an overall crowd-pleaser.
More on "The King's Speech" after the break...
"The King's Speech" is the story of Prince Albert of York (Colin Firth), who would become King George VI under circumstances well known to viewers with at least some sense of 20th Century history. Those circumstances are, in fact, far better known than the background that Bertie was a stammerer and that he and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter, playing the woman I like to think of as The Future Queen Mum) went through many speech therapists before seeking out Lionel Logue, a failed actor and ex-pat Australian who seems to have been at least as much a psychiatrist as an expert in speech defects. After an initial montage demonstrating breathing and tongue-twisting techniques, Lionel mostly functions as a vehicle for emotional purging and understanding. If he could hug and "It's Not Your Fault" Bertie into clear diction, he would.
The backdrop of "The King's Speech" is that with World War II approaching and radio becoming a more and more powerful medium, the image of The King was becoming less and less a piece of one-dimensional iconography for the British people. They needed a king they could welcome into their homes, a king who could reassure them in the face of impending disaster. This was the case with Bertie's father (Michael Gambon) and brother (Guy Pearce), but Bertie's problems could put the fate of the monarchy, as well as England's national morale, at stake. Or something to that effect.
We're prone to thinking it's an insult to call something a HBO movie, when really it isn't. Historically-based projects which, once upon a time, would have been theatrical releases and Oscar contenders, are now pipelined to HBO, which can turn things like "Something the Lord Made" or "The Special Relationship" or "Temple Grandin" or "Grey Gardens" into Emmy juggernauts. Looking at those projects, you would never be able to identify a diminished quality of writing or acting or even production values. You'd just notice perhaps a slight decrease in scope, an awareness that sometimes a drama about two great people in a room conversing needn't necessarily cost $50 million and needn't necessarily cost viewers $11 at the cineplex. HBO movies are *good*. Sometimes HBO movies are *great*.
And guess what? If "The Kings Speech" were airing on HBO this month? First off, it wouldn't look out of place in the least. Second off, it would win a pile of Emmys next fall.
Hooper is no stranger to HBO productions, having worked expertly on the long-form "John Adams," the mid-range "Elizabeth I" and the shorter-form "Longford." Those are three great TV projects and ultimately the only reason "The King's Speech" is playing at a theater near you and not on HBO probably has to do with financing. Its scope and reach are significantly more intimate than "John Adams" or "Elizabeth I."
"The King's Speech" is structured almost in a theatrical way. The actors deliver monologues and grand-standing speeches within lengthy scenes that generally play out in single rooms and just as generally find the characters standing or sitting in place or fixating on a single prop, like a model airplane or a record player or a microphone. Hooper respects that structure entirely, rarely moves the camera and, as often as possible, letting the actors recite their lines and arc their performances in uninterrupted shots.
For the actors, this is a clear boon. For many viewers, Firth never needed to improve beyond his "Pride and Prejudice" brooding, but he's definitely maturing as an actor. While his Bertie may occasionally have a bit too much weight-of-the-world moroseness, he also adds surprising levity, including one obscenity-spiked scene that earned the film one of those "Good God the MPAA is ridiculous" R-ratings. Firth's interplay with Rush is excellent, if only because this may be one of the first times the "Shine" Oscar winner has truly played well with others. Rush is prone to broad characterizations that have left me wondering how potentially unfulfilling it might be to work opposite him. Under Hooper's direction, though, Rush is big and boisterous and hammy when his co-star is internalized and uncomfortable in the beginning, but when Firth begins coming into his own and asserting his royal prerogative, Rush wisely doesn't attempt to keep up and does the thespian equivalent of genuflection. Carter, another actor with no reticence towards scenery chewing, is understated throughout and it's only near the end that you realize how much warmth you feel for a character who says so little.
The sense that this subject matter might not make for compelling drama is eliminated very early on when you realized that a stammer equals suspense. Hooper and Seidler rely on that suspense, plus occasional bouts of shouting from each man to push the story along. But in terms of a building arc, "King's Speech" is hampered by the historical fact that Bertie was, at least as far as we see here, a reactive figure being pushed along by outside forces -- Wallis Simpson, Hitler -- into a prominence that he doesn't seem to want. A reluctant and possibly incapable King is a fine character, but rather than taking a "Being There" approach, Hooper and Seidler insist upon referring to Bertie's greatness/bravery/excellence in dialogue that's never validated by any of his words or deeds. It's enough that he's a stammerer attempting to overcome his disability, rather than showing any of the man's capabilities in action. At one point, Bertie refers to how he's a Naval man, not a King and I could only react by saying, "Really? He exists outside of his stammer?" In another moment, Lionel tells Bertie that he's the greatest man he knows and I had to wrack my brain thinking of any evidence the character had displayed that he was worthy of such flattery.
Perhaps -- I truly can't rule this out -- Hooper and Siedler decided the telling-not-showing approach would work because British audiences would arrive with outside knowledge of George VI and audiences throughout the rest of the world would pay deference to the office of the king and assume valor inherent to the office. All that was required here was an extra scene or two to show why and how Bertie was a good man, a worthy man -- other than being a loving father to Future Queen Elizabeth -- other than leaving us to assume these things for want of scenes showing the opposite.
But in that vein, what's also lacking is a clear perception of how those around Bertie view him. We know his wife loves him and his brother is prone to mocking him, but if the movie's whole supposition is that, in this moment of history, George VI's speech troubles (or his potential failure to surmount them) put the whole nation at risk, it might have behooved the filmmakers to indicate if there was dissension amongst his inner circle. It would have expanded the scope of the story to find a way of showing how the bloke on the street felt about King George and his apparent silence. Even in a story where we know how things ended, historically, there's more at stake in a man who has to prove himself to a nation, rather than mostly just proving himself to himself. Again, it's just one or two lacking scenes to illustrate that Bertie's importance went beyond the walls of Buckingham Palace, rather than two or three characters telling him that his importance went beyond the walls of Buckingham Palace.
Those few missing scenes are what prevent "The King's Speech" from going from a very fine and satisfying parlor drama about the relationship between two very different men to being a possibly excellent meditation on the connection between speech and power, between broadcasting and might and the way that radio -- and, by future extension, television and the Internet -- changed the way people view and follow their leaders.
That will either make sense to you after seeing the movie, or it'll sound like splitting hairs. Certainly Firth and Rush make it easy to ignore shortcomings. And Hooper makes it easy to forget about shortcomings by totally nailing the film's climactic scene, a sharp piece of acting by Firth and the movie's only showy piece of editing as briefly Hooper actually *is* about to show a world outside.
Whether you're my grandmother or just an unrelated reader, I recommend "The King's Speech," a good movie I wanted to be great.