Friday, February 11, 2011

The King's Speech

Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

As expected, The King's Speech is an ordinary, old fashioned crowd pleaser custom built to entertain in all the predictable ways classic Oscar grabbing pictures do. It isn't disappointing at all, which is as much a testament to my low expectations going in as as it is to the film's quality. With its inspiring message of overcoming your fears to take the next step in life it's easy to see why it's striking such a chord amongst moviegoers. It's like the Rocky of stuttering king movies. And as much as I'd like to take cheap jabs at the film (nominated for 12 Academy Awards), it's important to note I'd be skeptical of any film released during any year standing in the corner opposite The Social Network in the Best Picture category. That's not director Tom Hooper's fault. He made a good film. That's it, but it's still something. What I can't possibly accuse it of is lacking heart or being irrelevant to our lives today despite taking place during what would appear to be a stuffy, restrictive time period, at least for entertainment purposes. This overcomes that stigma and is at times funnier than most comedies, which is a victory in itself.

When England's King George V (Michael Gambon) dies in 1936, the Duke of York (Firth) is passed over for the throne in favor of his hard partying older brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). Edward's brief but embarrassing reign during which he carries on an affair with a twice-divorced woman connected to Hitler, results in him abdicating the throne. Next in line, the Duke (or "Bertie" as he's known to his friends) must now step up and take the crown as King George VI. There's only one problem: He stutters. It's actually less a stutter or stammer than a full-blown speech paralysis that's affected him since youth, preventing him from speaking publicly and also even rendering him speechless in certain stressful social situations. Initially reluctant to accept a life of royalty, the King's wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks him the help of Lionel Logue (Rush), an Austrian speech therapist with some unorthodox ideas for treatment. The King must learn to trust him as well as admit that he wants to help himself before he can act as the leader and voice for his country as World War II begins.

Based on a true events, it's undeniable this story has built-in universal appeal. Everyone at one time or another had to face that one obstacle (or maybe more) that's prevented them from taking action and reaching their fullest potential. With his intelligence and strong sense of duty the King would seem to be the perfect candidate to hold the throne, but this stutter has crippled his confidence to the point that he's reluctant to be burdened with the responsibility. He could be great but doesn't want to, or maybe more accurately, is too afraid to be and the most interesting aspect of David Seidler's script is how well it zeros in on that psychological block, making the story about more than just a speech impediment. There's the physical manifestation of the problem and then there's the REAL problem. Lionel's methods for treatment of the actual affliction (which include breathing exercises and singing) take a backseat to the deeper issues instigating it as he acts as not only a confidant to the cranky, reluctant King, but as a life coach and mentor. While these two men from seemingly different worlds would likely never be friends under any other circumstances and the King tries to fight Lionel efforts all the way through, both do attempt reach a common ground on which they can effectively communicate. Their arguing back and forth (as repetitive as it sometimes is) results in more than a few laughs and quotable scenes of dialogue, one exchange in particular causing the otherwise tame film to receive an R rating, somewhat of a sham since the swearing in question isn't gratuitous at all and even essential to the advancement of the plot. Notoriously prudish when it comes to profanity and ignorant of its context, it's of little surprise the MPAA disagreed.

As the King, Firth is a revelation, giving one of the best performances of the year and proves to be more than worthy of all the attention he's received. He perfectly navigates both the physical requirements of the tricky role (never overplaying or underplaying the speech impediment) while also subtly conveying the character's massive insecurity and self-doubt. It helps having a great sparring partner in Rush who as the witty and sarcastic Lionel shows no hesitation in letting the King know he's in his house now and playing by his rules, royalty or not. Helena Bonham Carter is surprisingly fine in a role that doesn't require much at all but at least provides a welcome break from the Burtonesque gothic sideshow parts she's usually saddled with. Seemingly just along for the ride as the supportive spouse this is the first time I can remember where she doesn't stand out as an oddly unwelcome presence in a film. Guy Pearce has charisma to burn in just a few scenes as the King's screw-up brother, even if I was perplexed as to how he was cast as the older brother despite being much younger than Firth (and looking it).

The direction from Hooper (whose previous credits include HBO's John Adams and the soccer drama The Damned United) seems non-existent, as there's nothing noteworthy he needs to bring to a project that with few exceptions consists of conversations taking place in closed quarters. Despite being directed with no discernible imprint it's still easy to see how a less talented filmmaker could have botched it, causing the material to come across as a regal bore, as period dramas centering on the British monarchy have the unfortunate tendency of being. He makes a few interesting visual choices but aside from the performances this is mostly going to be remembered for Alexandre Desplat's score and the costume and production design. Technically the whole enterprise is handsomely put together so it's to Hooper's credit that he knew to just hang back and let the cards fall as they may, wisely letting the actors just do their thing.

I can't say I was on pins and needles waiting to see how this would all unfold. It's no mystery it will all come down to a big speech that must be delivered reasonably well, but not too well in order to maintain a realistically happy ending in much the same way Rocky did. Even while connecting with the deeper themes in the film. I found myself curiously unmoved by the time the final credits rolled, possibly because its intentions are so blatantly obvious. It's social relevancy comes in reflecting how much more is expected from our leaders than actual decision making with King George VI reluctantly finding himself at the forefront of an important shift, now required to do more than just ride his horse and wave. There's nothing wrong with The King's Speech, yet nothing spectacular about it either. While not merely about the King delivering a speech, at the end of the day the film somehow still feels like it's just about the King delivering a speech because it employs so many other familiar elements we're accustomed to seeing in inspiring underdog stories of Oscar's past. It's always nice to walk away from movies thinking about all that was done well, but more often than that a film can succeed by simply not messing things up and making it look easy.

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