Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The King's Speech

I read the synopsis for THE KING'S SPEECH several months ago and thought, "Eh, Oscar bait. Pass." Especially since currently a movie night out sets you back ten bucks. I read the reviews and felt I had already seen this movie, perhaps as early as childhood when I watched multiple TV and film treatments of the story of Helen Keller. Additionally, THE KING'S SPEECH seemed positively engineered to win awards, following some formula of illness/attempted treatment/struggle/triumph. Stories like this tend to get the statues. Actors love playing a character with some impairment as it allows them to run a gamut of emotions: calm/anger/scared/nervous/loving/hating, not necessarily in that order. One might say that such roles provide opportunities for the actor to stretch, to display their range. Agreed.

Now, I'm not saying that many of these films aren't worthy. Witness Daniel-Day Lewis in Oscar bait such as MY LEFT FOOT or Michael Keaton in CLEAN AND SOBER. These are good films with more than creditable peformances. I've just seen many of these type and the older and crankier I get, the more I want to be surpised. Not just by scripts, you see, but also performances. I love it when an actor takes what could be a one dimesnional saint or sinner and does something to subvert our expectations. Like real humans do.

Colin Firth, the eventual king of THE KING'S SPEECH, does not really do anything like that. He plays Prince Albert, the Duke of York, son of King George V in Great Britain during a most turbulent time in history: the percolation of what would lead to World War II. But backing up a bit, we see Albert attempt to deliver a live and radio address at Wembley Stadium in the mid 1920s. He doesn't merely stammer, he all but chokes on his attempt at articulation. We learn that it has been a problem for a good deal of his life.

Very supportive wife Elizabeth, the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham-Carter, who has not seemed to age since my first awareness of her all those years ago in A ROOM WITH A VIEW), is fed up with the speech therapy Albert receives-one of these experts has the Duke put several marbles in his mouth, a practice dating back to the ancient Greeks. Worse yet, the therapists recommend smoking for throat relaxation. This sort of nonsense would be quite common among caregivers on both sides of the pond in the early-mid 20th century, in fact:I snapped this in the mens' room at a local burger joint. It does sport the prevelant attitudes of its time, methinks.

Elizabeth eventually calls upon Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a relocated Aussie therapist who is also a wannabe actor with a fondness for Shakespeare. We learn quickly that Logue is a bit unorthodox with his insistence that the treatments be performed in his modest flat rather his Highness's palace (as is customary) and also by his addressing the Duke by an informal pet name. During the first session, Logue has Albert read Hamlet while listening to Mozart on headphones. The Duke reads a few lines but is quickly frustrated and ends the appointment. Logue provides his patient with a recording of the Duke's attempts as a consolation.

Months later, after continued difficulty with his elocution and berratement by his father ("spit it out, boy!"), Albert pulls the record out of its sleeve and is amazed to hear himself read "To be or not to be" and on quite flawlessly. The Duke will call upon Logue again and we are treated to one of those most endurable of movie cliches: the montage. Whether someone is training, learning, rehabilitating, or what have you, filmmakers love to cut a series of quick scenes (often set to appropriately inspiring music) showing our hero or heroine making progress. In THE KING'S SPEECH, we see Logue put Albert through the paces of various abdominal and throat exercises, recited tongue twisters, etc. We also observe Logue as he begins to probe Albert's psyche with a deliberate case history taking. We'll discover how Albert's speech difficulties caused the expected pain during childhood, the cruel words of family and classmmates. The sessions become intense. As a catharsis, Logue encourages his patient to let loose a stream of obscenities, in a very funny scene (the only one that could possibly explain this film's R-rating).

Meanwhile, there is much intrigue with the Royal Family's court. After George V's death, Albert's brother David (Guy Pearce), a playboy, becomes King Edward VIII. But he is plagued by his love for a twice divorced American, enough so to renounce his kingly duties and abdicate to Albert. It was just as well, seeming that David is more concerned with rare wine and parties and such. Albert feels no more qualified for his job than his brother did, and not simply because of his stuttering. He will confide to wife and Logue alike that he does not feel the least bit fit for the task. Logue will step up to not only help the newly appointed King George VI deliver a crucial speech to his countrymen on the outset of certain war (in a beautifully rendered climactic scene), but also to encourage him to achieve some modicum of confidence to do so.

It all sounds so contrived, no? So feel-good. THE KING'S SPEECH is an unabashed audience pleaser. The screenplay by David Seidler largely sidesteps the less savory details of royal family politics. The relationship between Albert and Elizabeth is shown as nothing but positive. You might say the screenplay is just so, British in its politeness and avoidance of unpleasantness. The story is fixed upon Albert and Lionel, their eventual friendship, estrangement, reconciliation, etc. Nothing at all surprising happens at any moment, but director Tom Hooper mounts everything so handsomely I never complained. He briskly paces this oft-told but still entertaining story, all based on real-life events. He even frames some visually inventive vertical shots of the King's palace, with its multi-storied staircases and long walls. The structure itself is the picture of foramility and rigidity. Bit of a chokehold, old boy? The tracking shots at times are almost Kubrickian.

But let's not get carried away. THE KING'S SPEECH, for all of its traditional, safe elements, works so well because it is so precise. It's not a mold breaker. It is an elegant, gleaming piece of cinema that has won deserved raves from cineastes, Oscar voters, and retirees alike. The performances by Firth and Rush are nothing less than excellent, and their scenes together are always compelling, even if neither breaks out of convention.

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