Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The King’s Speech (Weinstein Co., 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The King’s Speech, this year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner from the Weinstein Company — following up, in a way, their previous surprise Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love when Harvey and Bob Weinstein still ran their original company, Miramax, also a film (more or less) about British history and scoring with the snob appeal to Academy voters of a British historical setting and actual people as characters. As just about everybody knows by now, it’s about Prince Albert, Duke of York, later King George VI (Colin Firth, who won a deserved Oscar for his own performance), who badly muffs his first attempt at a public speech (at Wembley Stadium in 1924 for the first time members of the Royal Family had ever appeared on the radio (the “wireless,” as the British call it — just as what we call a cell phone, they call a “mobile,” which threw me when I first encountered the term in recent British fiction until I realized what it meant) because of a chronic stammer he acquired when he was 4 or 5.

The stammer came to him largely because he was overshadowed not only by his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), but also by his far more charismatic brother David, later (briefly) King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce, whose casting blows the credibility of the film even though he’s a fine actor, mainly because though he’s supposed to be playing the older brother he’s actually seven years younger than Colin Firth, and looks it). He tries a wide variety of speech pathologists, including one who puts seven glass marbles in his mouth and tells him to talk with them inside, saying it worked for the legendary Greek orator Demosthenes — and when Bertie (as he’s nicknamed) is unable to make any noise at all even resembling human language with the damned marbles in his mouth, my only surprise was that he simply removed them; I’d have been tempted to spit them out at the doctor! In desperation, Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), later his queen and still later the Queen Mother (so called to distinguish her from the current Queen Elizabeth, who is shown in this movie as a child and is played by Freya Wilson — so this film shows all four of Great Britain’s most recent monarchs), calls in a speech therapist from Australia named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who has an office on Harley Street — famous as the heart of London’s medical community — even though, as Bertie and we learn midway through the film, he isn’t really a doctor: he’s an elocutionist and amateur actor who started treating speech defects when young men from Australia who had fought in World War I returned home suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it showed mainly in their having largely lost the ability to speak.

From this Logue developed the idea that most speech defects are psychological, not physiological, in origin — though David Seidler’s script never makes the connection, this is all taking place in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, the time at which Sigmund Freud’s theories were becoming more influential, and Logue’s treatment of Bertie (Logue insists that they call each other “Bertie” and “Lionel,” that the treatments take place at the same home/office where he sees all his other clients, and that there be no class distinctions between them during the sessions) seems at times much more like Freudian analysis than anything we usually think of as speech therapy. From then on Seidler’s script, directed by Tom Hooper (a TV director with only two minor feature-film credits before this, and who comes off in the “Making of … ” documentary like a rapidly aging twink boy; when he’s shown with Colin Firth they look oddly like a Gay couple, with Firth the older, more mature and more financially endowed of the two, though perhaps that’s only because Firth’s best known film before this one, A Single Man, cast him as a Gay man contemplating suicide following the death of his longtime partner), follows a well-worn path of screenplay construction that even Hooper jokingly described as “boy meets therapist, boy loses therapist, boy gets therapist.”

They have a falling-out, they make up and Logue talks him through the crisis created by Edward VIII’s relationship with American divorcée Wallis Simpson (a marvelous harridan performance by Eve Best — from her work here I wouldn’t mind seeing her and Guy Pearce in a version of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor story, since she makes all the stories about her bossing him around unmercifully during their subsequent post-throne lives utterly believable), his abdication (actually stage-managed by Winston Churchill — played here quite well by Timothy Spall — who feared Edward’s infatuation with Wallis Simpson less than his infatuation with Adolf Hitler; Churchill not only knew that a second world war was inevitable but wanted to make sure England would be fighting against Germany instead of alongside it; to that end he looked for a pretext to get Edward off the throne and put the safely anti-Nazi George on it, and the Wallis Simpson affair turned out to be what Churchill needed — the script of this film even alludes to the allegation that Simpson had developed special sexual techniques during her years servicing rich Chinese at a brothel in Shanghai, which was what finally convinced a majority in Parliament to refuse to accept her as Queen — and a little-known follow-up is that in 1942 Hitler actually sent someone to Bermuda to meet with Edward VIII to see if he’d be willing to be a puppet ruler on Germany’s behalf should the Germans invade and conquer Britain, which of course never happened) and his need to get through the coronation and take the oaths of allegiance.

They do fine with that — it helps that the ceremony is pre-scripted and George only has four lines — but the real crisis comes three years later when World War II is declared and George VI has to go on the radio, not only nationwide but worldwide (at the time the British Empire was still a going concern and he was broadcasting to every British possession and dominion everywhere on the planet). Screenwriter Seidler recalled that as a boy he had a stammer of his own and he was impressed with George VI’s delivery of his inspirational speech, and when he grew up and became a screenwriter he wanted to make a movie about it — only when he contacted the Queen Mother (George’s widow), she said the whole subject was still a raw wound with her and she wanted him to wait on making the movie until she was dead. As things turned out, that put the project on hold for 30 years since she lived to be 101! What’s more, after the script was finished and the film was in pre-production, the filmmakers managed to trace Lionel Logue’s grandson, Mark Logue, who presented them with the diaries Lionel had kept during Bertie’s treatment — and some of the real-life lines Logue had recorded in his diaries ended up in the movie.

The King’s Speech is a great movie — handsomely produced, beautifully acted (mention should also be made of Derek Jacobi, who played a stammering monarch himself in I, Claudius for British TV, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Claire Bloom as Edward VIII’s and George VI’s mother — which puts everyone in this cast one degree of separation from Charlie Chaplin!), literately written and decently if not spectacularly directed — yet there’s also a feeling of stiffness to this movie, a sense that we’ve been here before, and it’s all too obvious that though he’s dealing with a true-life story, screenwriter Seidler is also carefully crafting it into the shape of traditional movie clichés. (One “plant” I particularly liked is that, in a film about a man who succeeds his brother to the British throne, the part Lionel Logue unsuccessfully auditions for at an amateur theatre company is Richard III — another British monarch who succeeded his brother to the throne.)

I couldn’t help compare it to its principal rival for the Academy Award, The Social Network, and as good a movie as The King’s Speech is, and as much as I enjoyed watching it, I thought The Social Network was better — nervier, edgier, more contemporary — even though I can’t agree with the critic who said that for The King’s Speech to win the Oscar over The Social Network was as much a mistake as an earlier Academy giving Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane. (For one thing, as good as it was, The Social Network was hardly as ground-breaking a film, stylistically or technically, as Kane.)