Sunday, December 26, 2010

The King's Speech (***1/2)

Directed by Tom Hooper


I'm sure that it's tough being royalty. It no longer holds the political stature that it did throughout history, but it still carries with it the emotional burden of being the face of an entire empire. You represent the present, while providing a glorious reminder of the fruitful past. The King's Speech is one of many films that deal with that burden, but it attacks the subject matter in a way that I've never seen done before. It funnels it through speech therapy - through the coverage of a debilitating stammer. It seems so inconsequential on the surface, but it's a testament to the film's stellar cast and excellent, exciting direction that this story becomes about so much more. It becomes a story of a man's search for self-purpose.

Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York, has had a tough stammer for as long as he can remember. His father, King George V (Michael Gambon), has tried to cure him with ruthless pressure, trying to scream at Albert until his speech corrects itself. Surprisingly, this doesn't work. It doesn't help that George forcefully pushes Albert into positions where he must speak publicly. The film opens as Albert tries to make an address during the closing ceremony at the Wimbley race track. He can't even finish the first sentence. So Albert concedes his place, stepping back in fear of speaking, in fear of his father and the pressure of his position. After all, Albert is not the heir apparent - that position belongs to his older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). As long as George and Edward hog all the attention in front of the microphones, Albert will never have to worry about people teasing him for his impediment.

But Albert's headstrong wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) does not approve of this form of resignation, though, and takes it upon herself to find someone who can help her husband. They've gone through all the royally-suggested options, but they were left with bull-headed physicians who try meaningless tactics like stuffing Albert's mouth with marbles or advising him to smoke cigarettes because it will "relax your throat". Nothing has worked. Elizabeth must go off the board, looking for a man that was referenced to her from a friend. This man is Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian man and former actor whose methods with his patients have been described as unorthodox and controversial. When Elizabeth explains that it is the Duke of York who will be the patient, Lionel gladly accepts to meet with him and help cure him. But it has to be under his rules.

Upon initial meeting, Albert is his usual curmudgeon self, dismissing Lionel when he says that following his strategy will help cure him. Lionel demands equality and trust. He calls the Prince by his family's pet name, "Bertie" - which Albert finds particularly distasteful. But when Lionel starts showing results, Albert is more keen to listen. He needs Lionel's guidance even more when King George V passes away, and soon after Edward abdicates the throne in order to marry his notorious, American mistress Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Very swiftly, Prince Albert has become King George VI and with the threat of a Second World War coming right around the corner and Hitler quickly swarming across Europe, the British people need a king that they can stand behind. As Albert states, he is not needed to pass laws or declare war, but just to speak for the people. And with the help of Lionel, he hopes that he can do so softly and clearly.

The King's Speech has been one of the most anticipated films of 2010 (which is funny since it may very well be the last film I see of 2010). The film was directed by Tom Hooper, whose made a name for himself mostly in television, including the ingenious HBO miniseries John Adams. He directs The King's Speech with an energy that is much unlike most English costume dramas, using odd lenses and leaving actors out of center frame. He's unafraid to leave the image in imperfection, putting the audience in a place of unbalance, perfectly reflecting the discomfort of Albert's crippling stammer. In collaboration with cinematographer Danny Cohen, Hooper drenches the film in muted gray-bluish colors, creating the image of the bleak, cloudy England that is rarely showcased in most English films (that usually prefer to represent the UK as a world of wondrous colors - this film and Children of Men are the ones that got it right).

The film has received a lot of traction early in awards season, especially for the beautifully mannered performance from Colin Firth. The fifty-year-old actor is at his emotionally-reserved best, executing the stammer in a way that is effective without ever becoming distracting. But the best moments all lie within his weathered face that is able to show so much underneath the tough, elitist exterior. He should have no trouble receiving an Oscar nomination, but if he should manage to win, I would not object to it. But it should be noted that Firth's amazing work is boosted greatly by Rush's funny and poignant portrayal as the speech therapist. He doesn't play Logue as the snarky, sarcastic sidekick, but instead as a man with real confidence... and real insecurities. He believes in his methods, and not even an abrasive royal figure will change his mind on that. A key scene involving the two of them rehearsing before the King Ceremony is played with real conflict and intensity. Both actors hit exactly the right notes, leading fluidly to the speech that is the emotional highpoint of the entire movie.

There is also a slew of excellent supporting performances here, including Gambon who, while only limited to a couple of scenes, fills George V with such oppressive aggression that we instantaneously understand Albert's fear of him. Guy Pearce, as the liberal, womanizing Edward VIII, allows his character to be a bit of a wild card while never becoming an absolute scoundrel. He did, after all, abdicate out of love. Then there's Bonham-Carter, whose performance as Albert's wife is wonderfully comic and stern at all the right moments. It becomes obvious rather quickly that Elizabeth is the real mind and heart of their family, but she always allows Albert to think that all that responsibility lies at his feet. Bonham-Carter deserves a lot of credit for pulling this aspect off without ever drawing direct reference to it. Behind every king is a great queen, and Bonham-Carter makes Elizabeth seem like the best (certainly the most supportive) queen that any king could ask for.

The King's Speech is, in its heart of hearts, a genuine crowd-pleaser. It never goes in a direction that we don't expect it to. Every character that we expect to crack joke does, and every character we expect to deliver a brooding monologue delivers one right on schedule. In a way, that's part of its charm. Hooper doesn't make this film under the illusion that it's anything more than that, but he directs it with enough vitality that it seems different anyway. The performances here by Firth, Rush and Bonham-Carter are truly dazzling, but it's how they work together that really makes this film one of the most complete and satisfying viewing experiences of 2010. When we come to the end, and the rousing speech is made, we don't feel manipulated into celebrating what Albert has overcome. Because we've been able to connect with him so well, it's as if we truly understand him. Now, let's see if Firth can deliver that Oscar speech with as much spirit.

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