November 26, 2010

The King's Speech (11/26/2010)

Lettergrade: A

The King's Speech is about the man who would become King George VI played by Colin Firth, and the horrible stammer he overcame with the help of a failed actor-turned-speech therapist, played by Geoffrey Rush. It also covers a fascinating period of world history ranging from 1925 to the late 30s (and the start of World War II). On the surface, one might suspect it to be a dry history lesson, and the more cynical might even point out that the main elements seem to go right down the awards' season checklist: a dramatic historical setting... a charismatic future-leader before he became a leader... a disability to overcome... the lines of succession within the Royal Family... World War II... Nazis... Winston Churchill... Helena Bonham Carter; all the things that Academy voters eat up. Believe me, I'm as sensitive to crass Oscar-bait as anyone, but so much of The King's Speech is well-done and the movie works so beautifully that it's hard to think that the filmmakers had much in mind other than making a good movie.

As the picture opens, King George V (Michael Gambon) is fading, and fears that his eldest son, played by Guy Pearce, will be too busy philandering to meet the responsibilities of leading the Empire and dealing with the gathering war clouds over Germany. Should Pearce's Edward VIII pass the Crown on instead, Firth would be next in line, but he himself lives in mortal fear of such a scenario due to his stammer, which leaves him more or less paralyzed at public engagements. And the film skillfully underlines that this is a time where oratory skills have never been more important. Early on, George V notes that the increasing omnipresence of newsreel cameras and radio technology require that all nation's leaders must not just look regal, but be able to elocute accordingly. "It's turned us into actors," he sighs.

The future George VI winds up taking top secret speech lessons from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who treats his client a bit more gruffly than Royals are used to. Their "inspiring teacher / reluctant student" dynamic feels a little familiar at first, but Firth and Rush sell it so well that it's hard not to be engaged by their electric screen time together. Indeed their lengthy sessions both dominate the picture and comprise what is best about it. Midway through, I wondered if screenwriter David Seidler, who also wrote 1988's highly underrated Tucker: The Man And His Dream, adapted the material from a stage play of some kind, but I've not seen anything in the credits or the production notes to suggest that he did. In any case, the writing is clear and sophisticated, it's hard to think of lead actors who could perform it more convincingly. The play-like structure is smartly counterbalanced by quieter scenes here and there where both men spend time with their families, and the geopolitics of the day churn in the background, causing Firth to interact with several alumni of the Harry Potter movies.

Director Tom Hooper last made the seven-part John Adams mini-series for HBO, which I tried to watch, but found a bit tough to get through. Part of what turned me off was that the key moments of Adams' life were filmed with an MTV-inspired "shaky cam," as if he thought history needed to be sexed up so teenagers would watch. In this one, he sticks with a fairly classical approach, pulling fantastic work out of cinematographer Danny Cohen, editor Tariq Anwar, and composer Alexandre Desplat, without letting any of them get too crazy.

There's a lot of awards season buzz around The King's Speech already. I never like making predictions on what might be nominated and what won't be, but all indications are that this one will turn up in many of the major categories, most conspicuously for its acting. As a kid, I think I might have rolled my eyes a bit at seemingly stuffy costume dramas like this that always dominate awards shows. As an adult who feels nauseated that a movie like Alice In Wonderland might get nominated for Best Picture, however, I recognize that a solid drama as well-crafted and as well-performed as this is award-worthy indeed.

Something about a reluctant king having to learn how to behave properly seems familiar, though...

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