Dec 19, 2010

The King's Speech

I am a total sucker for British thespians with exquisitely plummy enunciation and enormous reserves of repressed emotion. Not so much a sucker for transparently formulaic, crowdpleasing movies, but when peopled by excellent actors that make them rise above the formula, I am as happy as a clam. And so it is with The King's Speech, a movie that if it weren't for the flawless performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and a cast of wonderful British and Australian actors, it would be far less elegant than it is. As it is, it is quite enjoyable. I was in perfect diction heaven listening to Helena Bonham Carter speak a royal English that, according to something I read, is different, and definitely sounds different to the aristocratic accent of today. Had a virtual aural rapture listening to Michael Gambon, who plays George V, father of Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the stammerer in question. When I die, I hope it is the luxurious voice of Mr. Gambon that I hear announcing my upcoming membership in Hell. Derek Jacobi is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Timothy Spall is Winston Churchill, Anthony Andrews is Prime Minister Baldwin and Claire Bloom is the King's Mother, plus a bunch of wonderful child actors with the most delicious accents.  Even poor Bertie stammers in style. More than the diction, its the musicality that seduces. It is actually a sensual pleasure to hear these people talk. So I'm a snob. Can't help it.
The movie is based on a great true story. Prince Albert was relieved at not having to be king because of his serious speech impediment, but he ends up having to take the job, right in time for the Second World War to boot, because his stupid older brother and Nazi sympathizer King Edward VIII, abdicates to spend his days with Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.
I always have the nagging feeling that in movies about the British Royal Family, the protagonists are given far more intelligence than they actually have. It may be an entirely unfair assumption, but from my limited vantage point they seem like a rather dull lot. And yet it is not possible for Colin Firth or Helena Bonham Carter or Michael Gambon (or Helen Mirren and Judi Dench) to be dull or unintelligent.
Firth's performance could easily be showoffy, but he also kills when he is restrained. He undertakes the precise technical work to be a convincing stutterer with an almost offhand competence, but he also creates a very human character: proud, fearful, pained by shame, prone to outbursts. Firth is a master at playing an upper lip so stiff that it feels like it could crack any minute, yet he amplifies the enormous tension between his outward detachment and the storms that roil inside him without ever seeming hammy. He is utterly compelling. Geoffrey Rush is blessedly restrained and very charming and convincing as Lionel Logue, a sympathetic Australian speech therapist with unorthodox methods that ends up helping Bertie conquer his stammer.  
The King's Speech is a feel good period piece a la Chariots of Fire, a tastefully appointed movie that does the job. My 4 pm audience of mostly senior citizens and female Firth fans clapped at the end. I must confess I cried. I'm not expecting my period so I have been investigating the causes of this outpouring in a movie that has several moments that overplay the feel good formula to the point of vulgarity, among others, a ridiculous scene in which the tables are turned and Bertie urges Logue to man up and confront his wife. Way too obvious in a movie where actors are doing everything they can to be anything but.
I think that what made me cry was the cumulative release of hearing a man conquer fear like other men climb mountains, with enormous effort. I was also deeply moved by the growing rapport between Logue and Bertie, accomplished by two actors that really play to each other as in a chamber piece, bringing out beautiful work from each other.
I blame Beethoven's 7th Symphony, which the director Tom Hooper uses in the climax of the film. It is humanly impossible not to feel emotion at the sounds of him. And I blame Firth, because he gets to you. His vulnerability, his determination, his wit and his passion get to you. His final scene is a master class on acting, not only by the real actor, but by the character who is called upon to sound like a king and relies on acting technique to communicate, not only without stammering, but with emotional impact. Aspiring thespians, watch, listen and learn. And learn from Geoffrey Rush too, playing a thwarted actor, delicately but confidently guiding his charge through the treacherous waters of a nine minute speech. I may have even been moved by the speech itself and by the fact that the British sensibly decided not to be pals with Hitler at the last minute.
My heart sank, however, when Firth begins his speech and we hear the notes of lush strings in the background. At least they have the good sense to use Beethoven (hiring the great Alexandre Desplat to provide an effective but forgettable film score), but I wish Hooper had allowed the audience to hear the speech like the citizens of the British empire heard it, in its raw bareness, without the added strings. Yes, it is a device that takes the audience into the character's inner world, but it's disappointing that the filmmakers could not trust that the words and Firth's incredible delivery of them would be eloquent and stirring on their own. Why should all that poor man's effort compete with Beethoven? The movie weakens its own point. Moments like this, that tip the scales in an shamelessly crowdpleasing way, prevent this movie from being a really solid film.

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