Sunday, February 6, 2011

On the Big Screen: THE KING'S SPEECH (2010)

Take a few minutes before reading on to listen to this old record. Northatlantic78rpm uploaded it to YouTube.

It's a halting voice with obvious speech impediments, the Elmer Fudd "w" and so on. The pauses come at such odd times that you sometimes wonder whether the speaker fully understands what he's saying. The funny thing is that it reminded me of recordings I've heard of the speech Emperor Hirohito made to the Japanese people in 1945 to confirm the country's surrender. I don't know Japanese, but the voice had the same halting quality to my untrained ears. Perhaps it's a royal quality, or else royal speech therapist Lionel Logue may have been right when he said -- if he said it -- that pauses make a speech sound more solemn. As George VI, Logue's client, said -- if he said it -- by that standard he would prove the most solemn monarch in history. The moment was solemn enough, of course, and given the circumstances the people of Britain were bound to make allowances for the voice of their king. Posterity has made further allowances, making of this brief talk a triumph of rhetoric worthy of a feature film's buildup.

Tom Hooper's film is the favorite, for many people, in the field of ten nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. It has the pedigree of class, the authority of biography, the human interest of a struggle against handicaps. It's the sort of movie that has won Oscars in the past, and Colin Firth's performance in the lead role of George VI is the sort that wins Oscars a lot. It's a bit of a stunt, as Firth must not only re-create the king's stutter and other verbal flaws, but also gets to play a monarch cussing up a storm as if suffering from Tourette's syndrome and express repressed emotions in song. After some scenes you expect to see judges holding up signs with large numerals on them. To be fair to Firth, he emphasizes emotion over technique for much of the picture, but the big scene where he rehearses the war speech, complete with cussing and singing, really goes too far. It's a grandstand play and a showoff moment for the actor that disqualifies his performance, despite its many virtues, from honest consideration as the best of the year.

The King's Speech is technically excellent on just about every level, and arguably award-worthy in the realm of production design. The thing I'll remember most about this film is its wallpaper -- and I don't mean that as an insult. Production designer Eve Stewart did an extraordinary job recreating period interiors, particularly the vividly bleak wallpaper in Lionel Logue's office. Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen have a way of filming scenes with the characters off center, so that backgrounds dominate the frame. This approach gives a strong sense of place, including comparative scale when you contrast scenes with Firth and Geoffrey Rush (playing Logue) in the office with scenes with the two men in the vastness of Westminster Abbey. The collaboration of Hooper, Cohen and Stewart is a genuinely brilliant accomplishment.

The film as a whole is a triumph of style over substance, an instance of talents working to their utmost to make the most of material that, the historical context aside, is conventional if not cliched. Going in, I suspected that The King's Speech would seem derivative of The Madness of King George, an earlier history film that hinges on a monarch receiving therapy from an irreverent commoner. The film itself invites comparison by having its King compare himself to "mad King George the Third," but its thematic devices are too many to be traced to a single film. In some sense, Speech may be as generic a film as you could imagine: a troubled man must open up and express repressed feelings under therapeutic prodding in order to redeem himself for past failures and rise to the biggest occasion of his life -- by delivering a speech. Subtract the history and it sounds like Screenwriting 101.

Again, the film does remarkable things with the familiar tropes. Objectively, The King's Speech is a very good movie, one that I'd probably include right now in my own Ten Best list for last year. But something bugs me about it. Something makes me feel that the film is, if not at all bad, then still wrong somehow. I think it's the very focus on George VI as a heroic figure whose role in history is somewhat inflated here. He's certainly a sympathetic figure; the second son of George V and accordingly neglected by father and public in favor of his older brother David, Bertie is additionally accursed by a stammer that seems to derive from strict measures to correct left-handedness and other alleged flaws. He embarrasses himself at his first nationwide radio address, a debacle of amplified echoing stutters that haunts "Bertie" throughout the picture. Untrained for the role, he ends up King because David (Guy Pearce) proves indiscreet and irresponsible in his pursuit of the famous Mrs. Simpson. The film tells us that Bertie is a better man before he proves himself a better king, not least because he's more politically sound than the short-reigning Edward VIII, who briefly suspects Bertie of conspiring to depose him. "The younger brother pushing the older brother off the throne; that's positively medieval, isn't it?" David says. It's a telling remark by the film against itself. If we could believe that Bertie took more of an assertive, patriotic role in ridding his country of an unreliable brother, that would be the stuff of a powerful history play. But the abdication crisis of 1936 is but a passing episode of a story that insists on the big speech as its climax, as if Bertie were a barber turned dictator with the sudden power to change the course of history. In fact, I doubt whether Bertie wrote a word of his speech, or did much if anything to edit it. Yet the film tells us that his reading the text was an important contribution to British resolve at the start of a long war. And in telling us this, the film cheats. If you played the video above, you heard the unadorned voice of George VI. In the movie, Firth is backed by Beethoven. I don't think the filmmakers were trying to convince us that the Seventh Symphony was playing over Bertie's broadcast. But we, the audience, hear that dramatic music and we're clearly meant to hear it as some analog for the purported power of the royal words. Hooper doesn't have the confidence that Firth's plain reading will have the same effect on us that he claims it had on the British people -- such an effect, the film seems to imply, that everything Churchill said subsequently may have been superfluous. But since the whole film has been staked on the idea that the king's delivery of the words will be crucial, something is wrong with this picture. Not bad, but wrong.

Despite that, kudos are still in order for the whole ensemble, from the actors already mentioned to Helena Bonham Carter as an understated Mrs. Bertie (the future Queen Mum), Michael Gambon as a gruff, pressuring George V and Derek Jacobi as a persistent Archbishop of Canterbury -- though I feel that Timothy Spall gives no more than a caricature of Churchill. There's a lot to like about The King's Speech, and I might be less critical toward it than I am were I less of a historian and it less obvious about its Oscar-worthiness. If you like good acting, within reason, and a well-made film, Hooper's movie should satisfy most viewers. But it is neither the best picture of 2010 nor the best of the Oscar nominees, and I'll be disappointed a little, to the extent that I still care about the Academy Awards, if Speech wins as much as some expect.


Sam Juliano said...

"The thing I'll remember most about this film is its wallpaper -- and I don't mean that as an insult. Production designer Eve Stewart did an extraordinary job recreating period interiors, particularly the vividly bleak wallpaper in Lionel Logue's office."

What an utterly brilliant point Samuel, but then this extraordinary piece (what a fantastic idea to usher in the review with that recording of George VI!!! Bravo!) is class from top to bottom. While I have long known that anything with a historical underpinning is your special forte, it is nonetheless a joy to read your special insights and comparisons. I never knew or figured out, for example, that Hirohito spoke "haltingly" to the Japanese people when he delivered the surrender by radio.

You have aptly framed the reasons why this wonderful film is the favorite for the Best Picture Oscar, and make no mistake about it, with the SAG, PGA and DGA in hand there is zero chance here for any surprise. The surprise as it is has already been spent when this film miraculously erased a unanimous run by THE SOCIAL NETWORK among the critics' organizations. While I don't agree that this film is any kind of 'style over substance' triumph, I well respect your nagging conflict of conscience when it comes to issuing unreserved praised. Your points are well taen, as are you interesting comparisons with another film I cherish, THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE, which showcased a bravura turn by Nigel Hawthorne.

Yep, yep, yep on Timothy Spall being the lone disappointment, a contention Allan Fish made to me over the phone a few days ago!!!! Well, I found him fraudulent from the get-go, but it's a tiny flaw as Firth, Rush, Carter, Jacobi and Gambon carry the day as gloriously as the afternoon George delivered his rousing speech to the fired up British people.

It's one of the ten best pictures of 2010, hence it's winning is fine and dandy with me.

Samuel, congratulations. This is truly one of your finest hours as Churchill would say.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam: As I don't speak Japanese, all I can say about Hirohito's surrender speech is that it sounded halting to me, and in that regard reminded me of George VI in fact and film. As far as the Oscars go, I suppose I'll be rooting for Social Network, which was always going to be the less safe choice compared to such prestige as Speech.

I'm glad to find corroboration for my poor opinion of Spall. The part may as well have been played by a man in a Churchill suit and mask. And I have this nagging memory that the film actually misrepresents Churchill's position during the Abdication crisis, though I may be wrong about that.

I was tempted to throw in more footage of the real Bertie, by the way. There's a clip of him opening the Festival of Britain, which would be late in his reign, in which he speaks much more confidently than in the famous speech, and in front of an audience, too. It's good to see that he continued to improve.

Murderous Ink said...

I find it very fascinating that you compare the King George VI's speech to Emperor Hirohito's surrender speech. I am a Japanese, and tell you the truth, I barely make out the exact meaning of the words Hirohiro was speaking. It is said that most of the Japanese at the time did not understand what he was saying. The vocabulary of the speech was quite arcane, the delivery of the speech was somewhat foreign to modern Japanese ears, and the sound was horrible (broadcasted was the recording made during the previous night). The "halting quality" you mention may be the result of his main function as the practitioner of Japanese Shinto ceremony. In those ceremonies, he delivered the divine chants/words in the style which was said to be from 7th or 8th century. No wonder it sounds solemn. But the very fact that he was speaking at all meant something extremely grave. The surrender speech was the first time the Japanese nation heard Hirohiro's voice. During the broadcast, U.S. soldiers in Okinawa asked Japanese POW if this was really the Hirohito's voice, but they didn't know. In that sense, King George VI's speech depicted in the film has the same gravity and impact to the nation as the Hirohito's. Not only the content of the speech was the turning point in history, but the fact that the King/Emperor himself was speaking was the historical event.
As for the film, I haven't seen it yet (it will open here later this month), but I have suspected it as a run-of-the-mill plot strengthened by the high quality production. It's just too obvious, but I imagine it works. "Subtract the history and it sounds like Screenwriting 101" sounds what I suspected all along. And Beethoven's Seventh? Hmmm. That sounds wrong. Anyway, I will check it out.


Samuel Wilson said...

Murderous: Thanks for the illuminating info about the Hirohito speech. The two orations now strike me as qualitatively different, though they likely had similar effects on their audiences. The Japanese archaism and the British deliberateness probably both convey an "alien" quality that seemed appropriate for monarchy.

The talent involved in The King's Speech transcends the formulaic aspects of the plot. My criticism still rests on the seemingly exaggerated significance the film assigns to the speech, but that doesn't hurt the movie's entertainment value.

BRENT said...

I tend to agree that this is a grand standing type film. It just smacks of being solely made to win at the Oscars. It has a of 'look what we have done' without real substance feel. Sure the acting is good, but there is as you say something that 'bugs' about this film.
I'm hopeful that it doesn't get the amount of awards it seems destined to recieve. I think too often a popular film gets too much recognition just on that alone. I don't think it is bad and I did enjoy it, but there was better within the last year.
I saw Fair Game on Monday and as an historical film I thought it somewhat eclipses Speech. It engaged me more without any grand standing on an actor's ability for the role as Firth has done.