Sunday, December 5, 2010

The King's Speech

Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech," on the strength of blasting out of both Toronto (Audience Award minted) and Telluride, is making a serious push for the crown of Best Picture. A win there to me would seem a bit unfair. It is a film with a disconnected narrative and ideas, that becomes groaningly hokey, tiresome, and cliched when it continues to overplay many a moment in its second half with its cloying score. This is not to suggest that this film does not work at all. It is a very visually arresting film, which is surprising for a period picture. And, most importantly, in it Colin Firth gives the best performance of his career and Geoffrey Rush does quality work as well.

Firth plays the man who would become King George VI, who cannot speak with the proficiency that someone in his position is required to have. He fails in his first public appearance as the Duke of York, and the need for assistance becomes more evident than ever. The only problem is that he's gotten abrasive towards those therapists who have to help him, and, with his lack of patience and the doctors' inability to get him to keep going, he feels that his ailment is impossible to fix.

His wife, soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth (an underutilized, very good Helena Bonham Carter), goes without telling him to one more speech therapist. This is Lionel Logue (Rush), who has his office in a dank and abstractly wallpapered basement. Logue writes her off at first, falling under the impression (due to the alias used) that this is just another case. However, in what develops into a sort of running joke, Elizabeth reveals who she actually is and Logue comes to take George on.

Logue has the audacity that the other doctors lacked. He insists on staying on a first-name basis with George (whom he incessantly calls Bertie, his family nickname) to have the intimacy that he finds necessary. He tries to find and use the points where George is able to avoid his stutter (when he cannot hear himself speaking, when he's singing, when he's swearing). And he, also prods George to a level that he's never been before, so much so that George considers Logue the "first normal friend" he's had.

While George is gaining this training for personal life (telling stories to his daughters) and smaller public appearances, it begins to become apparent that he might need it for something much larger. His prickly father George V (Michael Gambon) passes, and his womanizing brother Edward (Guy Pearce) becomes king but is taken by a love strong enough to marry (Wallis Simpson, portrayed by Eve Best). Which comes as a problem, seeing as she is a divorcee. So even though George doesn't have the ambition to be king, that comes to hardly matter.

As I noted earlier, the film has masterful visual stylism, with its unpredictable and palpable cinematography by Danny Cohen that is one of the year's highest technical achievements. The typical period sobriety is not what he's aiming for, although he does bounce off of some of the hallmarks of the genre. The camera is packed into a small elevator along with the king and queen; it follows George around as he rages or as he follows one of Logue's treatments; and it employs the architecture of the period in marvelous ways (it reminded me of Matyas Erdely's extraordinary work on "Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project"). It is the perfect compliment to Jenny Beaven's costumes, and a fabulous addition to the film as a whole.

Firth could also be called this. He plays George with an exceptional naturalness. He sometimes locks the film down, but in retrospect that's exactly the point. He plays the polar opposite of his rival in the awards competition, Jesse Eisenberg as the unusually breakneck Mark Zuckerberg. I found his work in last year's "A Single Man" rather overrated, but here he's getting deservedly lauded. I found Rush also suited his part, charmingly playing what may become one of his signature roles.

They are brought up and then let down by David Seidler's script, crafting an auspicious start and then a detrimentally sentimental followthrough. Even if most of the cogs in the machine are working, when one as big as this one goes down, the film is affected. Enough to make it a bore as it progresses and thus to hinder the course of a potentially top-notch film. B-


Adelaide Dupont said...

"Colin Firth gives his best performance ..."

(Oh I want to see this! Even if I did not know the story of the king and his speech therapist, I do think it would still appeal in some way).

And I did learn about "Bertie" through a book in the Reader's Digest Condensed Sections which was focused on factual stories.

Nick Duval said...

Speaking of not knowing the story, I was at first confused why they were making a film about such a "minor" topic. Then I pulled back and realized. :)