Sunday, February 27, 2011

The King's Speech

Dir. Tom Hooper

It can sometimes be difficult to consider the whole picture when one element of it stands out so noticeably. Colin Firth tends to be that element. Take for instance, last year’s A Single Man. A fine film carried far on the shoulders of Firth’s performance and Tom Ford’s progressive, if sometimes mishmash, artistic direction. A year later and we arrive once again at the Colin Firth picture of the year: Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. This is not to draw direct comparison to Mr. Ford’s picture, though there are striking similarities, but rather to suggest that Firth’s dominant personality tends to overshadow the film’s other merits. In Mr. Hooper’s film those merits are plentiful indeed.

To begin, the screenplay by David Seidler is solidly built and well paced. As with Firth’s performance, which drives the narrative progression, it is dynamic and secretive. Seidler himself is reportedly cursed with stammering, a fact that adds an even greater emotional depth to the film and lends Firth’s performance an air of loving respect. Themes of repression and civic duty punctuate the inspirational tale of King George’s personal triumph in what would come to be seen as his country’s “darkest hour.” Though occasionally pushing its melodrama too far, the film nonetheless retains modesty without sinking into the murk of sentimentality. That a film should be emotional, nationalistic and inspirational, while balancing an objective sense of history and a subjective, lived-in approach to characterization is a feat that is as impressive as it is difficult.

In The King’s Speech we are permitted to enter the realm of the aristocracy. It is a pleasure the viewer relishes secretly. As with Stephen Frear’s The Queen, we are presented with a considerably darker vision than that of our speculative imagination. In the court of the King of England, composure is the true ruler. The film’s characters wear faces that look to be carved out of stone and their demeanor and speech is controlled as to reveal no indelicate emotions. That our protagonist and hero, the soon to be King George VI, can hardly carry on a conversation, never mind make a speech (the importance of which is deftly conveyed in a newsreel of Hitler’s notoriously rousing bombast), is an example of aberrant behavior that we learn is systematically punished. George’s sessions with speech therapist Lionel Logue (a delightfully cheeky Geoffrey Rush) turn therapeutic as Logue attempts to explore the King’s unhappy childhood.

The term “correction” comes up numerous times. That the corrective process for soon-to-be King George VI should include psychological bullying by his family and torture by his nurse, is emotionally provocative, yet given what the film chooses to present to us about English aristocracy, it is also not quite surprising. This corrective behavior is perhaps best surmised by King George’s wife, Elizabeth (an ironically distant Helena Bonham Carter), who, in perhaps the film’s most emotionally raw moment, recalls that she at first did not wish to marry him because she would essentially be giving up her own life for a life of “indentured servitude” to the people of England. Contrasted with the King’s abdicating brother and the emerging forces of modernity (radio and the second World War), it is powerful statement in favor of the very forces that have, up until this point, kept George a stammering recluse.

There are numerous other elements worth exploring in The King’s Speech, from cinematographer Danny Cohen’s precise use of wide angle lenses in claustrophobic sets to the lavish but never baroque artistic direction. However, in conclusion, I believe it is worth mentioning how The King’s Speech, on the eve of what many are predicting to be its victorious Oscar night, is one of the last films to wear the banner head of the UK Film Council before it’s abolition this past year. That such an elegant and impeccably produced film might go on to out muscle some of the year’s most heavy hitting Hollywood films, seems a national triumph in and of itself. Not being English, I naturally can’t be certain of this. Though just as King George’s triumphs symbolically reflect the strength of nation, perhaps, stretching the metaphor for purposes of editorial denouement, one could suggest that The King’s Speech represents the strength of the film industry that backed it. For the sake of Tom Hooper, the English film world and cinephiles everywhere, I can only say: I hope so.

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