Thursday, March 3, 2011

The King's Speech

"I'm gonna knock you owwwt!  Queen Momma said knock you owwwt!"
I'm reading a lot of post-Oscar snobbery against The King's Speech's Best Picture win, and I don't get it.  If you haven't heard (or don't care), the criticisms have sounded more or less like this:
Of course The King's Speech beat out The Social Network for Best Picture.  It's a period piece with British accents, while The Social Network is about the most cutting edge technology EVER!  Way to take the conservative choice, Academy!
First of all, let me just say that my best film of the year was Inception, not either of these prestige pictures.  That said, I completely disagree with the negative feedback toward The King's Speech.  Yes, it has British accents, but I don't consider WWII-era England as a "period piece;" aside from some ladies' dresses, they still wear the same suits and hats there today.  Heck, according to British "comedy," men still wear the same dresses today.  As for the technology angle, I would argue that this film shows an example of just how powerful technology (in this case, radio) is.  More importantly, though, this is a movie about friendship and overcoming adversity --- and it's not a huge downer!

Prince Albert (Colin Firth) is second-in-line for the British throne.  His father, Albus Dumbledore King George V (Michael Gambon), a forceful personality, is getting on in years and laments that he will have to pass the crown on to his playboy son, Prince Edward (Guy Pearce).  Edward isn't a bad guy, but he's not prim-and-proper, like royalty should be, and he has a tendency to sleep with married women.  Obviously, it's okay for British noblemen to have sex with married women --- the primae noctis decree was clearly supported in Braveheart --- but you're not supposed to keep a relationship going with them!  That's peasant behavior, man!  It's just as well, though; in these modern times (the 20s and 30s), it is becoming increasingly expected that the King and Princes will give public addresses on that new-fangled radio box.  In another fascinating concession toward popular trends, here is a clip of Edward and Albert (I assume) dancing the Charleston to the music of the times:

Edward is handsome and a good speaker, like his father, but Albert --- well, he's got a bit of a problem.  Albert has a stammer, a stutter, a speech impediment, or whatever you want to call it.  His speeches are punctuated with long, awkward silences that draw attention away from whatever he's supposed to be talking about and embarrass him and everyone listening.  Awkward!

Okay, fine, the man isn't a public speaker.  Neither are most people.  The only problem is that his "job," such as it is, won't let him avoid public speaking.  Tired of seeing her husband humiliated in public and private by his stammering, Albert's wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) decides to approach an unconventional therapist after all the traditional doctors have failed.  This therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), is a transplanted Australian with some radical ideas --- he wants to be informal with the Prince!  Gasp! --- but he is able to prove his theories relatively quickly.  Unfortunately, George V opts to check out of life's grand hotel a little earlier than was convenient, which makes Edward the king.  Ed's insistence on marrying his lady love (an American multiple divorcee), partying with commoners and generally acting un-kingly alienates Parliament and just about everybody else.  When he is faced with his crown or his woman, Eddie chooses the lady and resigns his post.  That makes Albert the new King of England, and he assumes his new rap name kingly name of George VI.  Soon afterward, Parliament declares war on Germany, and AlbertGeorge VI needs to give the most important public address of his life to an audience that could cover as much as a quarter of the world.  Can Lionel and AlbertGeorge fix his stutter in time?

I have to admit that I really enjoyed this movie.  The acting was great.  Colin Firth, who wastes his talents so frequently on romantic comedies, is wonderful in an understated performance.  I love laughing at people, but I didn't laugh at his stutter even once in this film --- that is quite an accomplishment for this creative team.  His character was very well written, too; it can be difficult to identify with the problems of royalty, but focusing so much on Albert's perception of his duties and the embarrassment that comes with not being able to communicate was endearing to watch.  When Bertie failed, I felt awkward; when he made progress, I felt proud.  That's some damn fine filmmaking, right there.  Geoffrey Rush was also very good.  I picked him as my Best Supporting Actor of 2010 because he did a great job playing a no-bullshit, I'm-right-and-I-know-it type, while simultaneously being the embarrassing father to his sons and being justly afraid of his wife.  It was a well-rounded performance that felt very real.  Helena Bonham Carter was also good as the supportive wife --- definitely a solid supporting performance --- but I would have liked to see her develop a personality of her own, outside of "I'm helping my husband."  The rest of the cast was fine, excluding Timothy Spall, who did a pretty annoying impression of Winston Churchill, and a pretty standard interpretation of a self-important religious guy by Derek Jacobi.  And am I the only one who found it funny that Rush's character is called out for being Australian, but Guy Pearce (another Aussie) was playing a British Prince?  ...maybe it was just me, then.

The direction by Tom Hooper was interesting.  Obviously, with some of the best performances of the year in his movie, Hooper must have done a pretty good job of directing.  It goes beyond the simplicity of a good working relationship with the cattle actors, though.  Hooper was able to hit all the right emotional buttons with this movie, overcoming any resistance from Recession-era America.  The politics of the film was played down and Hooper wisely chose to emphasize a very relatable problem: the fear of public speaking.  It also helps that the glamor of being a Prince is de-emphasized, with many of Albert's efforts being spent on things he did not enjoy.  Most importantly, though, Hooper was able to make the friendship between a King and a commoner seem plausible, warm, and mutual.  A lot of movies make you tear up because something is sad, but it takes a special movie to make you proud of a character.  On a cinematography side-note, I didn't notice the high-vaulted ceilings that are so common in movies about Kings and Queens; instead, I noticed fairly enclosed spaces and hallways.  I don't want to get all artsy on you, but I think Hooper might have subtly been suggesting the pressure on Albert, or at least symbolizing his throat problems.

In the making of this movie, the filmmakers chose an interesting path.  You would think that the story of a King who abdicates his throne for his lady love would be worthy of a movie; heck, even a story about a woman who feels that she is important enough to forfeit a kingdom over could be good viewing.  Other movies might have focused on the politics of England in the years leading up to World War II.  Instead, this movie is about a King with a stutter, a story that doesn't sound interesting at all, and it is far more engaging than those other possibilities could hope to be.

Films that are based on real people often fall into the trap of telling their life's tale, without having an explicit dramatic arc.  Thankfully, this was a movie about overcoming an impediment, and didn't focus on George VI's reign --- Bertie was King when Britain went from a worldwide empire to its modern size.  Surprisingly, the film didn't call out the Royal Family at all.  Helena Bonham Carter's character became the Queen Mother into this millennium, Bertie's daughters eventually became the seemingly eternal Queen Elizabeth II (still on the throne) and the scandal-plagued Princess Margaret.  I really appreciated that this movie doesn't poke you in the eye with its historical impact, or that of its characters.  Avoiding those self-serving odes to history definitely kept the interest on the relationship between King and commoner, and that simplicity is part of what makes this film work.

Is The King's Speech a movie that will floor you with special effects or a powerhouse performance?  No, but that's okay.  It's well-written, -acted, and -directed.  It's pretty low-key, but it is able to make you laugh and tear up.  What more do you want?  It's just a really, really, well-made film.
If you're curious as to what AlbertGeorge sounded like in real life, check out this link.  Firth's final speech is a very good imitation.


  1. I haven't seen the King's Speech yet, though I really, really want to. But I do have to say, that I somewhat agree with those critical comments about The King's Speech vs. Social Network. I am not saying that the King's Speech was not a phenomenal movie--I'm sure it was, and can't wait to see it--but I also feel that a movie like Social Network (or even Inception) didn't stand a chance against it because it WAS a dramatic, English period-style piece. Social Network did not rely on crazy special effects to tell a good story. It relied on its acting, just like the King's Speech seems to have done. But because, being English and about royalty, the King's Speech has a more elitist feel to it, I believe that is what gave it the edge to the Academy.

  2. Personally, I think the reason The King's Speech won Best Picture was not because it was British or because it was about Royalty. Instead, it had the most well-developed relationships in any of those films. Inception was about the plot, The Social Network was about great dialogue and the irony of the Facebook creator having no friends. The King's Speech was about friendship and conquering personal demons; that makes its appeal more widespread, and I think it was certainly worthy of its awards.

  3. I'm not saying it wasn't worthy of the awards. I'm just saying it didn't surprise me that it won. I thought the acting in Social Network was pretty awesome, even if the movie itself didn't have the same kind of message the King's Speech did. I also think Inception and Christopher Nolan got robbed in general at the awards this year, and that still makes me angry.