Monday, January 24, 2011

The King's Speech

Having unfavorably reviewed "Dutch Girls" I thought it fair to give Colin Firth his due . . .

Film Review: The King’s Speech (2010)
Directed by Tom Hooper. Screenplay by David Seidler.

The harshest criticism of “The King’s Speech” is that it is solid. “Entertainment Weekly” calls it satisfying but square. I think this means that it is a film with no surprises. As with many historical dramas, the end of the story is already known to us; it is the journey there that matters.

Executed with delightful precision, this is an actor’s film dominated by a troupe of actors who always hit their marks. That alone, to watch such skilled performers become so completely the characters they play, gives the film a nearly documentary veracity. We literally become flies on the walls of a behind-the-scenes drama about one man’s struggle with stuttering.

The importance of his impediment comes with the importance of the man. Shakespeare knew that truly great tragedy involved potentially great people who found themselves in situations far greater than their own lives. Tragedy was the arena of kings. As we meet Prince Albert, he is not yet king but we already know he will be -- and King of Great Britain when the Second World War broke out. The gravitas underscores Albert’s personal struggle with the demon that plagues him -- his inability to communicate effectively or with the confidence of a Royal.

Albert is the second son of King George V, the king who guided Britain through the First World War and can see the second one coming. George is charismatic and confident, but troubled by the prospect of who will succeed him, eldest son David. Albert is second in line. When George dies, David becomes King Edward VIII, perhaps the least suited individual ever to take the throne. When he abdicates within the year in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, Albert becomes the reluctant but necessary king, taking the name George VI.

Most of his reluctance comes from his stammer. Even as Prince Albert he was infinitely better suited to being monarch than his brother, something even their father recognized. But he cannot make a speech. No doctor or therapist has been able to help. Enter Lionel Logue, an Australian born speech specialist with his own ideas of how -- and where -- to practice. The film focuses mainly on the efforts of both men to become a team, one who is destined for greatness regardless of his own fears and the other who gladly would have embraced greatness if it had befallen him but would never attain it.

Through a series of witty and touching encounters we peer inside both men’s very souls. It is a remarkable thing to witness, and both men are so sympathetic that we find ourselves caring deeply about the outcome,. And would have, I think, even if Albert were not the man who would be king. It is a story of two men of totally different backgrounds united by a common purpose, who become friends. At times it is heartbreaking, particularly in the moments Albert reveals deep hurts within himself, but never sentimental.

At this writing Colin Firth has already won the Golden Globe for his performance as Albert and is the frontrunner for the Oscar. Geoffrey Rush was nominated for the Golden Globe for his role and Lionel Logue, in a supporting role, but the award went to Christian Bale for his work in “The Fighter.” An Oscar nomination for Rush would be well earned. Firth dominates the film as a complex, deeply flawed leader-in-the-making whose flaw is glaringly, embarrassingly visible. Rush is beautifully pained yet both exuberant and patient as Lionel, a remarkable, fiercely intelligent man whom time and society had ignored until now.

Helena Bonham Carter is loving and supportive, and regal, as Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (mother of Elizabeth II and later much beloved Queen Mum). Jennifer Ehle is equally supportive in the smaller role as Mrs. Logue. The rest of the cast is a who’s who of leading actors taking marvelous supporting roles: Sir Michael Gambon as George V; Guy Pearce as the whiny, self-absorbed David/Edward VIII; Anthony Edwards as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin; Derek Jacoby as the manipulative Archbishop of Canterbury; and Timothy Spall, with a rare chance to play the good guy, doing a fine turn as Winston Churchill.

Albert became king in 1936. But it is the speech he gave on September 3, 1939, that climaxes the film. The speech announces to all citizens of the United Kingdom that Germany and England are at war for the second time in his lifetime. In it he addresses his subjects, his people, at the gravest moment of their history and must show both his concern for their future and confidence in ultimate victory. With Lionel Logue at his side, he speaks with all due deliberation, and not a single stammer, for nine minutes, and is truly the leader his people need at that grave moment.

One critic noted that the film did not address David’s sympathies with Germany, which indeed would have been interesting but distracting to Albert’s story. It is also noted that the timeline is compressed for dramatic effect, that Logue actually began working with Albert in 1926, much earlier than the film implies. Another critic mentioned that Churchill did not have as obvious a presence in the 1936 court as the film suggests. It is known that Churchill was very fond of George VI and suspicious of Edward VIII, and that Churchill’s admonitions regarding Hitler went virtually ignored until it was too late, but adding his presence to the film gives historical recognition for many of us who are vague on the inner workings of British politics in the time leading up to the war.

Otherwise, the film is as accurate as any drama based on factual events can be. And as compelling to watch.

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