Thursday, February 3, 2011

The King's Speech Movie Review: Reluctant King Stammers, Finds Friend, Gets Cured

Time was when members of the royal family simply had to look regal and avoid falling off their horses, but radio turned them into actors. So explains King George V (Michael Gambon) to his son Albert (Colin Firth), or Bertie, as he is better known to his family early in The King’s Speech. Albert’s older brother Edward (Guy Pearce) is next in the line of succession so he doesn’t have to be as concerned as others. Especially considering that he suffers from a terrible stammer that makes his speech sound ridiculous. Students of British history will know, even if they know nothing of the film, that Albert went on to become King George VI, the monarch who reigned over Great Britain and its colonies through WWII.

Director Tom Hooper, working from a script by David Seidler, has made a film that eschews a lot of the austere stuffiness of many British historical dramas. He brings a relatively light tone to the majority of the film, which centers on Albert’s desire to liberate himself from the constrictions of his stammering speech. After a series of speech therapists who only serve to make Albert feel foolish, his supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) sneaks off to find one last therapist whose methods are deemed rather unconventional.

Lionel Logue is the man she meets – a man who refuses to treat a patient anywhere outside his office. Thus Prince Albert is forced to descend to the abode of the common man, removing himself from the comfort (if you can call it that) of his royal home. Geoffrey Rush is an actor with the proper stature, both physically and artistically, to successfully play Logue, a man who needs to be able to put a Prince of England in his place.

One of the film’s many conceits is that a man like Logue would have been so quick to be so familiar with a Royal, even to the point that he refuses to call him anything other than Bertie. This is a minor tweaking of historical fact that I’m willing to forgive for the sake of dramatic license. Likewise the alteration of the historical timeline which has Logue preparing Albert (later George VI) for his big speech at the outset of the war when in actual fact he had been working with Logue for well over a decade by then and had already become accustomed to giving important speeches without stammering.

After a chilly first meeting, Albert softens a little after witnessing what Logue can do and a professional, and eventually personal, friendship begins to develop between them. Having a friend outside the royal family is a big step for Albert, who has obviously never had anyone he could call friend. They continue working together from the mid 1930s as the continent hurtles toward war with Hitler taking over all of Germany’s neighboring countries. At the same time, George V is dying and his heir is an unserious playboy who’s having an affair with Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite.

Shortly after ascending to the throne, he announces his engagement to Wallis, a move that Parliament simply cannot abide given the people’s reluctance to accept a divorced woman as Queen. Recognizing the potential crisis that would ensue and the need for national unity behind the King, Edward abdicates, elevating Albert, who takes the name George to restore a feeling of confidence.

While some measure of license is forgivable in the service of fashioning a more dramatic narrative, I must take issue with the wholesale rewriting of history. I believe film makers have a responsibility when presenting history to get the broad strokes correct. Albert is depicted here as having a great desire to stop Hitler, viewing it is vitally important to unite the country behind him and Parliament. Unfortunately, Seidler was too busy trying to cram royal drama into a convenient narrative to realize that if it had been up to the monarchy in 1939, Britain would have allowed Hitler to continue plundering the mainland for as long as possible. They are regarded by many historians as appeasers. Seidler’s rather unsubtle script makes Edward into a feckless wimp, but also glosses over the fact that Wallis was a Nazi sympathizer and the two made a goodwill visit together to Nazi Germany, even meeting with Hitler himself.

But if we only want to look at the story as it’s presented, ignoring history, then what’s left is an utterly conventional, if entertaining, film. What Seidler’s screenplay gets right is its way of making the staid subject matter of the British Royals accessible. I’ve rarely felt so involved in the life of a monarch as depicted in a film. That comes from the light touch and wonderful wit of Seidler’s writing.

Not to mention the acting is absolutely top-notch. Colin Firth, coming off a great performance in last year’s A Single Man, is at the very top of his game. He’s nearly flawless save his apparent inability to do crying very well. His performance took me right out of the movie in a somewhat forced scene in which he breaks down before his wife at his newfound responsibility. Carter, who was the absolute best thing about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, is the rock that anchors Firth’s performance. And Rush is simply divine, proving once again why he has every right to be listed among the best actors working today.

The one exception to the remarkable casting is Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. This is probably the first time the incredible Spall has been woefully miscast. Playing Churchill can’t be easy. Virtually any performance of the man has to walk a very thin line between realism and caricature. Spall comes down kind of hard on the wrong side.

Still, the conventionality of the plot continues to dog me. First there’s the scene of Albert trying out a therapist with exaggeratedly ridiculous methods (he’s made to cram seven marbles into his mouth and try speaking). Then there’s the obligatory first meeting between Lionel and Albert in which Logue establishes that he won’t take any BS, not even from a Prince. “My castle, my rules,” he boldly says to Albert after not letting him smoke. Then there’s the bond of friendship that develops between therapist and patient. You know, I liked this movie a lot thirteen years ago when it was called Good Will Hunting.

That film was about a poor orphan from the slums of Boston who was physically abused as a child, leaving behind an emotionally scarred young man who just needs a therapist/friend to give him a hug. The King’s Speech is about a rich aristocrat from London, emotionally abused as a child by his father and brother, who just needs a therapist/friend to understand him. Okay, it’s a pat and tenuous comparison, but do a Google search for the two film titles together and you’ll find I’m not the only one it’s occurred to.

Maybe I’m picking on it too much. After all, my immediate reaction was one of elevated enjoyment, a rare feeling evoked in me by period costume dramas. Most of the flaws didn’t come to me until after the fact. I suppose I could think of several worse ways to spend a couple of hours, one of which might be spending time with the British Royal Family.

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