Friday, December 31, 2010

The King's Speech: Deftly spoken

The King's Speech (2010) • View trailer for The King's Speech
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, and quite stupidly, for a few therapeutic sessions of profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.10

The next time somebody contemptuously dismisses acting as a frivolous occupation with no redeeming social value, cite this film and its fascinating account of eccentric speech therapist Lionel Logue, who very likely helped England win the war against Hitler’s Nazis.

Not bad, for a failed Shakespearean actor from Australia.
Faced with the need to make a very public speech, and knowing full well that
he'll make a fool of himself, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) nonetheless -- and
quite bravely -- approaches the podium, with his wife, Elizabeth (Helena
Bonham Carter) offering plenty of moral support.

The King’s Speech – clever title, that – is both an absorbing story and a thoroughly engaging film experience: superbly acted by its three stars, and meticulously crafted by director Tom Hooper (The Damned United and 2008’s richly composed John Adams miniseries) and screenwriter David Seidler. The movie works both as a compelling slice of history and an often delightful character study, with an intimate, behind-closed-doors account of “The Royals” that feels wholly authentic, even though nobody would have taken notes at the time.

Indeed, everything about this saga remained a carefully guarded secret for decades. We’re able to cherish this account of a most unusual friendship – and professional relationship – only with the luxury of extreme hindsight.

And what a story it is: yet further proof that truth really is stranger than fiction.

(I seem to be saying that a lot this month, since the phrase also crept into my recent review of The Fighter. In a way, both films are alike, as they involve determined protagonists who face an unlikely challenge with rather unconventional assistance.)

The story begins in 1930s England, as the advent of radio – “the wireless” – makes it necessary for King George V (Michael Gambon) to become a more visible presence in Britain via broadcasts and Christmas speeches, akin to Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” in the States. Such responsibilities also fall upon the king’s two sons: the elder Edward (Guy Pearce), the Prince of Wales, next in line to the throne; and Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York.

Like his father, Edward – known by the family as David – has a rich and nicely modulated speaking voice. Albert, called Bertie by his intimates, is quite the opposite; he has a lisp and a terrible stammer. His radio debut – opening the second season of the British Empire Exhibition, at Wembley Stadium – is a wincing, embarrassing calamity.

The ghastly experience merely reinforces Bertie’s desire to do something about this problem, and in fact his wife – Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter) – already has guided her poor husband through nine (!) speech therapists, each with crazier suggestions than the last. Trying to talk through a mouth full of marbles is the final humiliating straw; Bertie abandons the whole idea, knowing that his diction isn’t really all that important anyway. After all, he’s quite unlikely to become king.

We’ve no idea, of course, how many more “specialists” Elizabeth subsequently consulted, behind her husband’s back, before she finally arrived at the rather unusual basement office/flat inhabited by Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and his family. To say that Logue is eccentric would be putting it mildly; his first eyebrow-lifting response to Elizabeth’s request is to explain that he never makes “house calls” ... not even for the Duke of York.

“My rules,” Logue insists, albeit politely. If Bertie wants help, he’ll have to come to Logue’s office.

And, yes, Elizabeth’s reaction involves an amused gaze and raised eyebrow from Bonham Carter ... who, it must be mentioned, charms her way through this entire picture: no small feat, given how she shares the screen with scene-stealers as accomplished as Firth and Rush.

Clearly, Elizabeth admires Logue’s audacity, and the fact that – while unfailingly cordial and “correct” – this man doesn’t bow and scrape obsequiously. (No doubt because he’s Australian; they always were cheeky buggers.)

What follows, over the course of several years, is part therapy, part exercise, part couch-style analysis and frequent impertinence. Bertie gradually opens up – such a carefully layered performance by Firth – and stands revealed as a nervous, insecure, lonely man forever in the shadow of his older brother. Worse yet, his “problem” is an unspeakable blemish in aristocratic surroundings that aren’t permitted to acknowledge flaws of any sort.

Indeed, as we eventually learn, the very existence of Bertie’s younger brother, John, had been concealed from the public. John was both epileptic and severely abnormal in other respects; he died in 1919 at the age of 13, having lived the final years of his life shunted away from the rest of his family. (John’s sad, short life only came to public awareness within the past decade, and even now details remain sparse.)

The therapeutic tug-of-war between Logue (the irresistible force) and Bertie (the immovable object) is a captivating two-hander, with occasional visits from Elizabeth and more frequent intrusions from the outside world. The intimacy of Bertie’s shame – his desperate desire to “fix himself” – takes on greater significance as events conspire to thrust him ever more in the public eye.

Seidler’s script is unsparing in its condemnation of David, later King Edward VIII, who ascends the throne in January 1936 after their father’s death. But David is hopelessly in love with twice-divorced – and promiscuous – American socialite Wallis Simpson (a blistering portrayal by Eve Best), whose very presence among the Royals is a scandal; in December of that same year, Edward abdicates in order to marry Simpson ... and the reluctant Bertie becomes king.

Still stammering.

Worse yet, with Hitler on the move in Western Europe, war looks increasingly likely ... and the British people will need a king to rally behind: a public speaker able to inspire his nation.

Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.

An increasing sense of urgency hovers above the speech therapy sessions as this film progresses. Determined to attack the problem at its core, Logue repeatedly invades Bertie’s comfort zone; the drama – and light comedy – come from watching the way Firth inevitably resists, then gradually acquiesces. After all, commoners simply don’t behave this way with royalty, and who the hell does Logue think he is?

Rush is deliciously larger than life: an impertinent sod not about to give an inch, who delights in tormenting his sons by testing their knowledge of passages from Shakespeare’s plays, which he acts out with relish. But Logue has his vulnerable side, as well; it emerges when he tries out for a local theatrical production, only to be dismissed by a director not impressed by the broad flourishes. Rush’s face, at this moment, is shattered; we realize, despite his gifts as a teacher, that he can’t succeed at the one thing he’d most love to do.

Firth, continuing a healthy run of superlative performances, adds yet another with his richly nuanced portrayal of Bertie: a heartbreaking depiction of a man trying to prevent his personal anguish from becoming a public spectacle. We’re not accustomed to seeing so exposed a side of powerful figures, although this certainly turns Bertie into a much more sympathetic figure. We ache for him, and Hooper builds palpable suspense into the new king’s pending appointment with that ominous, one-eyed microphone: framed by cinematographer Danny Cohen for maximum malevolence.

Firth’s expression, every time he eyes the damned thing, is that of a man on his final march to the gallows.

Pearce strikes just the right note as an arrogant, self-absorbed jerk who couldn’t care less about his country, and is cruel to boot; watch the contemptuous expression on his face, at a party hosted by David and Wallis, as he makes fun of Bertie’s stammer.

The supporting cast includes Derek Jacobi, appropriately regal as Archbishop Cosmo Lang; Claire Bloom, as an increasingly concerned Queen Mary; and Timothy Spall, as Winston Churchill. My only complaint about this otherwise exceptional cast is directed at Spall, who tries too hard to “mimic” the actual Churchill. Spall’s “acting” detracts from the otherwise naturalistic work done by everybody else.

Alexander Desplat’s score is spare but effectively employed, never better than when an unsettling theme rises each time a microphone invades Bertie’s field of view.

Mention must be made of the truly idiotic R rating given this film: a slap administered by cretins who objected to the language in two scenes, when Logue helps Bertie realize that he never stammers when he swears (or when he sings). Firth’s resulting string of epithets is grandly amusing, and hardly offensive; the notion that the R rating might prevent children from seeing this film is both sad and frustrating. Everybody should experience history of this sort, particularly when it’s so well presented.

I fear, as too often is the case, that The King’s Speech will escape mainstream success and be pigeonholed as an arthouse film, even after Firth’s almost certain Academy Award for his performance here. More’s the pity.

Great story, excellent performances, engaging and witty dialogue ... good grief, what more could you want?

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