January 20, 2011

Speaking to the Public

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The King’s Speech had the unfortunate luck of being labeled as an Oscar-hungry film quite early, dating back to the hysterically enthusiastic reaction that followed its initial screening at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Reviews have been almost exclusively positive, lauding Colin Firth’s role as the stammering King George VI as career-defining, a performance so inexpressibly perfect that you will be reduced to a blubbery, buttery heap of tears by the time the credits roll.Rather than refute these claims, it would be much more productive to qualify the aspects of The King’s Speech that seem to have audiences so sheepishly smitten. The film follows Firth as the second-born son of King George V, a gruff and baritone Michael Gambon unwilling to accept his son’s speech impediment. World War II is coming to England, and Firth’s formidable stammer is forced into the public eye after his elder brother (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne to marry one of those goddamn Americans. Following his wife’s counsel (Helena Bonham-Carter as the queen, charming and cheek-boned as ever), the new king starts unorthodox speech therapy with Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The two men’s relationship provides the dramatic crux of the film, artfully balancing bits of humor and drama as Logue’s therapy sways from shaking jowls to childhood trauma.The king’s stammer sets the stage for the necessary moments of painful tension as Firth’s desperate chokes and coughs invoke despair, courage and eventual exultation. The opening scene forces the poor prince in front of a microphone to read his father’s statement to the entire British Empire via radio, and from then on our sympathies are forever his. Yet the main reason for the broad success of The King’s Speech is not its approach to what is basically an underdog story, but rather its sheer, unabashed Britishness. The film was orchestrated by a largely British administration, set in a time of heady British significance, and embodies the sort of stout, dignified resilience so often associated with our neighbors across the pond. Every room is prim and proper regardless of the royal presence, and the arbitrary social monarchy so often associated with Britain acts as the film’s entire skeleton. Rather than let that stuffy dignity seep into the film’s juicy bits, however, director Tom Hopper maintains a detached, airy humor to the whole affair, from Derek Jacobi’s perfectly preposterous Archbishop to Rush’s Dr. Logue, who seems entirely unimpressed with the aristocratic posturing, but is willing to put up with it for the sake of his friend. The English style of sharp, clean regality appeals as much to an aging American public fed up with 3-D as it does to native Brits, and has profited immensely as a result.While The King’s Speech hardly makes any mistakes, it seems unwilling to risk anything worth losing. The relationship between Firth and Rush drives the film at the cost of developing any of the other characters’ intimacy, reducing them instead to charged moments and lockedstares that ultimately reflect back on Firth alone. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop Hopper from trying, and Firth’s connections with his wife, brother and father cannot move beyond one dimension. Once Hopper establishes the brother as cruel, the father as rough and the wife as supportive, their roles plateau and become little more than material through which the two central characters may work. This safe mentality extends to the dialogue, full of witty little quips and sly retorts that had the matured crowd in my theater tittering relentlessly, reaching for their oxygen masks in hopes of relief. That said, however, The King’s Speech has turned something that could have been unforgivably boring into a sharply engaging film. It has joined This Is England and Wallace and Gromit in the pantheon of supremely British films that are actually accessible to the American viewer, and will probably get Colin Firth an Oscar in the process. Geared towards an older audience more appreciative of the subtle aspects of character and connection, The King’s Speech is an example of how filmmaking need not rely on the bells and whistles of a digitized era to simultaneously entertain and share a message with its audience.

Original Author: Graham Corrigan