Saturday, January 8, 2011

The King's Speech

Right - catching up on my oscar-bait now. It's hard to go into films like these in a vacuum. Eventually, a certain amount of buzz rubs off on you. Films can certainly defy expectations, but you usually have those expectations going in. In my case, I had been hearing that the King's Speech was a front-runner for best picture after TIFF, it had slipped greatly and experienced a bit of a backlash, and then good word of mouth as it was released was helping it to regain momentum (backlash against the backlash?). Two of my very trusted friends had both really loved the film. I am not a huge Colin Firth fan, but I had really loved him in A Single Man last year. Then I found out that a lot of the supporting parts are occupied by some of my favorite British actors. Plus, I like the Weinstein Company, who is putting it out. And finally, I was raised on a lot of BBC and Masterpiece theater, so I figured the genre was pretty up my alley.

So did I like it? Eh...

Here's the thing - the acting and the production design are very good. I really felt that the script was incredibly uneven.

In case you have been living under a rock, the plot follows the Duke of York, who becomes King George VI when his brother abdicates for Wallis Simpson, from a disastrous public speech at Wembley to his speech to the people on the eve of WWII. The basis of the film is the relationship between the Duke and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, an unconventional Aussie who helps him overcome his stammer.

Colin Firth gives a really great performance. And he and Geoffrey Rush are pretty much assured acting nods, I think.

The problem for me came from the script. There were these moments of expository monologue-ing that just didn't do it for me. It actually made me think of Fritz Lang's Metropolis; here, let me BEAT YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH THE MESSAGE OF THE FILM. And it was annoying, because parts of the film were really well written. For example, the best scene in the film comes from the Duke opening up to his therapist after the death of his father. It's wonderfully acted, and subtly written. The audience gets a lot of the home dynamics in the royal family, and the emotional trauma that the prince went through.

Contrast that to Michael Gambon as King George V, berating his son while he practices a speech;

This devilish device will change everything if you won’t. In the past all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and speak ingratiate ourselves with them. This family is reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures...we’ve become...actors!...

When I’m dead that boy will ruin himself, this family, and this nation, within twelve months. Who’ll pick up the pieces? Sir Oswald Mosley - marching his black-shirt British Union of Fascists through the streets of London? Herr Hitler, intimidating half of Europe, Marshall Stalin the other half? Who’ll stand between us, the jackboots, and the proletarian abyss? You?

Really, is that why it is important for him to not stammer? Gee, I hadn't gotten that through him watching you deliver a radio address, as part of your functional duties. You mean a part of his stammer comes from you being an overbearing father? I had no idea. It's like Masterpiece Theater for dummies. And these swings in the quality of the writing I found very jarring.

Finally, it also annoyed me to no end that Edward, the Duke's older brother, was reduced to an over-simplified villain. Okay, I get that the film focused on George, and that the whole royal family blames Edward for forcing him into being king and very possibly shortening his life-span by a whole lot. So I get that he is going to be the villain in this telling. But my understanding of his relationship with Mrs. Simpson was that they were wildly devoted to one another and that he was actually very canny in his dealings with parliament. In the film, he's basically a hood-winked playboy, even if he is well acted by Guy Pearce. Anyways, the part seemed very reductionist and inaccurate. Plus, it turns out that Winston Churchill was best friends with him? Didn't get that at all...

Finally, the woman who played Wallis Simpson looked very familiar and I could not place her till I got home; it was Eve Best. Eve Best, who is one of the finest Shakespearean actresses alive, was reduced to swanning around in a cocktail dress and looking cougar-ish. That is a tragic misuse of her talents right there.

I guess overall I'd say the scenes between Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are very well done, training montages and all, and that most of the periphery is ill-handled and over-blown (if set in pretty scenery).

3/5 stars.

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