Sunday, February 27, 2011

THE KING’S SPEECH (2010): King George VI

The Academy Award Ceremonies for movies filmed in 2010 is this evening so I am in a rush to get this review out before the award for best picture is announced.  I neither know nor care which film is going to win (as a general rule, committees seldom get it right), but I do know that The King’s Speech will receive accolades.  It’s a well made and extremely conventional film that for the most part accomplishes what the director set out to do: make the audience feel sympathetic towards the lead character, King George VI (Colin Firth).  Since we’ve only had two or three movies in the last twenty years that have won the Best Picture Oscar that were anything but conventional movies, I’d say that The King’s Speech has a good chance of winning.

George VI (called “Bertie” by his family) never expected that he would ascend to the throne.  That was to be the destiny of his older brother, David (Guy Pearce), later to become King Edward VIII.  There were a couple of complications in having Edward VIII retain his key role in the monarchy, however.  For one, he intended to marry a twice divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).  This would be totally unacceptable to the Church of England.  More significantly (and something barely hinted at in The King’s Speech) are the fascist leanings of the Edward VIII and the close ties that Simpson had with members of the Nazi regime in power in Germany.  Within a few years, Hitler’s troops would be bombing London, so Edward VIII getting married off in this manner was actually a blessing to the English people.

There was one problem with Bertie taking the throne (and it was impossible not to know this with the publicity that this film has received): he was a stutterer.  Whether it was because he was left-handed, bullied by his domineering father, ridiculed by other family members (especially by David), abused by his nanny, haunted by the death of another brother who suffered from epilepsy, or mostly friendless as a child - all of these circumstances are tossed out as possible contributing factors for this speech defect.  If Bertie was to take the throne, he would also be expected to make wartime speeches to counter the rabble rousing diatribes given by Hitler to increasingly larger rallies throughout Germany.  Thus, before and after he ascended the throne, Bertie is seen on almost a daily basis by a brilliant speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  Logue, a failed actor (not a licensed physician), has many years of experience working with those struggling to speak including soldiers wounded in World War I.  Logue insists that he and his royal client treat each other as equals – something that one about to take the throne might find to be a difficult task.  Nevertheless, because of Logue’s therapy and the support of Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), King George VI succeeds at making that first speech (and we’re to presume many others) to the English people with little to indicate the presence of any speech impediment whatsoever.

The King’s Speech is a simple and moving story.  The film does as good a job of presenting Collin Firth in the role of underdog as any film about the royalty could possibly deliver.  Firth, Rush and Pearce are all excellently cast in their respective roles.  We at all times feel like we are in pre-war England throughout the movie, and at 111 minutes the film does not seem overly long for a movie that’s a borderline melodrama.  That’s probably enough for this kind of film because it certainly wasn’t designed to get below the depths of anything.   David Siedler wrote the screenplay (who never has written anything else significant that has appeared in film to date) and Tom Hooper directed the movie (who has always directed films for television before this).  If the film was intended to show us the human side of the royal family, it certainly accomplishes this (though probably no better than The Queen filmed in 2006).  The story of Edward VIII abdication from the throne was so well publicized in the tabloid news that we don’t get much dirt known only among the inner circles of the royal family.  Edward VIII was the bad king that thankfully stepped aside for the good king, George VI.  The movie is not about Edward VIII, so I guess we didn’t need to know about his incessant womanizing that went on long before he met Wallis Simpson, that after the abdication he and his wife (who became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor) visited Hitler in Germany, that the couple were guarded by Nazi security when they lived in occupied Paris, that Winston Churchill threatened the Duke with court marshal if he did not return to British soil and show at least a little concern that England may be destroyed by the Nazi bombings, and otherwise harbored racist feelings to all non-white members of the British empire.  Since it is about George VI, one good deed of the king never mentioned in the film was that he and his wife remained in London during the blitzkrieg that was occurring in the skies of London during the entire Battle of Britain.  Because of this show of courage, George VI probably renewed faith in a monarchy that many will always debate to be a useless institution.

As much as I pretend otherwise, I was somewhat impressed that the Academy Award committee last year showed a bit of acumen by choosing The Hurt Locker over the obscenely popular Avatar.  Still, it doesn’t bother me that conventional films often get the nod because what passes for “edgy” in Hollywood is often pseudo-babble dressed up as profundity.  If The King’s Speech receives the Oscar instead of The Social Network, I will await the critics lamenting that once again a film with social relevance has been passed up for the award.  It’s these same critics that are guilty of hyping pretension and cynicism over stories that they never quite admit affect them emotionally.

February 27, 2011

© Robert S. Miller 2011

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