Friday, January 21, 2011

To Suffer the Slings and Arrows

Well, here's a fascinating study in contrasts.

At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much in common between Tom Hooper's 2010 film The King's Speech and my film from yesterday, Black Swan. But they do share some skeletal elements: both deal with arcane lives, with damaged people living out on the remote reaches of the bell curve. But on those similar bones we find quite different flesh. Where Black Swan is pure fiction, The King's Speech deals with actual people and events (even as I loathe that "based on the incredible true story" drivel that pollutes the poster).

When the English king George V dies in 1936, his eldest son David ascends to the throne. But David is madly in love with the American double-divorcée Wallis Warfield Simpson, and he reigns only briefly as King Edward VIII before taking the extraordinary step of abdicating his throne to marry. This would in itself be pure soap opera (and was surely the juiciest scandal of its day) but for the menace of Adolph Hitler and the promise of a coming world war. It is the very worst time for the helm of England to be without a strong captain. The next in line for the throne is David's younger brother, Prince Albert (played here by Colin Firth). But Albert is a lifelong stammerer, which rather tragically makes him perfectly unsuited to the public figurehead role into which events have thrust him.

The Albert of the film is quite debilitated by his affliction (though not, I noted, so debilitated as to prevent him from having a dedicated and loving wife and two adorable daughters) and the more important the occasion, the more incapacitated he becomes--and the more urgent it becomes that he find someone who can help him. Just thinking on this whirlpool can make a fella's palms sweat. A stammerer since early childhood, Albert has seen a variety of quacks, none of whom are of any assistance, and just as he throws up his hands in absolute despair his wife discovers the Australian-born speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush). Logue is a delightful fellow, but one with some rather unorthodox ideas for the time: he dismisses any thoughts of physical or mechanical defects--which have been everyone else's focus--and insists on probing the personal and emotional roots of Albert's affliction.

But this is like french kissing the Queen Mum: a commoner insisting upon digging into the intimate personal details of a British royal sounds like a surefire way to earn a vacation in the Tower. And it's no help when the unknown commoner is confident and surefooted in the matter while the King of England cannot even express his outrage. But Logue is unmoved by either the King's or Queen's insouciant dismissals--he knows they will not exorcise the skeleton without opening the closet. His insistence that in his office they treat each other as equals--"my castle, my rules," he says--threatens to derail the whole enterprise. Continuously. But the situation is dire and they have exhausted every other option. In the end desperation--and Logue--wins out.

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are absolutely delightful here. If they weren't already two of my favorite actors, this movie would make them so. These are two very sympathetic, likeable characters who together are facing a thorny issue. The King's struggle is not played for entertainment; in this we have another parallel with Black Swan. But The King's Speech is much more an exercise in hope and inspiration than in dread and tension. We may not understand the pressures facing a British royal, but King George is a human being with a very human problem. It's hard not to pull for him. Rush's Lionel Logue is even more engaging, a warm and quirky and inner-directed character who is nonetheless sensitive to the delicacy of his task. He needs the King's trust to proceed, something not easily won. In this matter the King has every reason to trust no one, even as he is desperate for help.

The setting at the cusp of WWII is a familiar one, and all the big names of the day make their cameos: Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill (a nice turn by the great character actor Timothy Spall). Hitler himself makes an appearance on a couple newsreels; his speaking--the very fact of him--is absolutely magnetic to watch. This is the man and the manner which plunged the world into one of its darkest nights. The film's pacing is brisk and the story is told with a sure hand. Director Hooper is young and a relative newcomer to feature films, but based on this film we might expect to see much more of him.

There was one tiny thing which I found a touch odd: the film's biggest moments played to a score by... Beethoven. The music wasn't unpleasant or inappropriate, but with Germany and Hitler being the elephants in the room the choice of a German composer for this most British of moments seems a little careless. Especially when there are so many fabulous British composers from whom to choose. I could happily pick some Vaughan Williams for you, Mr. Hooper.

But that's nothing at all. If you have any taste at all for historical stories--and even if you don't--go and see it. It's the best two hours I spent all week.

Grade: A


dbackdad said...

Great flick. Saw it a week or two ago. I agree about Firth and Rush. They are a couple of actors that are absolutely at the top of their game. Carter does a nice job as well, making it a bit of a touching love story.

I saw a nice interview with Firth on the Daily Show this past week and they discussed how little this particular story has ever been hit upon. Considering its relevance to the direction England took in World War II, and the added intrigue of his brother, it's damn interesting from a historical perspective. But even more, it's damn fun seeing two actors like Firth and Rush interact.

It's in my year end top 10 (which I hope to post tomorrow).

wunelle said...

Just watched the interview you mentioned. Very nice. This is definitely on my best-of list for last year's films (not sure what else I'd put on there; I have to review what I saw...)