Saturday, January 16, 2016

"The King's Speech": review

"The King's Speech" stars Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush as King George VI and Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, respectively. As with "The Social Network" (reviewed previously), factual accuracy seems not to have been a major concern in this film, so I must again evaluate the movie purely as a drama. The movie's title is, as you can imagine, a clever pun: on the one hand, it's about how the king, an inveterate stutterer (he's referred to as a "stammerer" in the film*), needs to prepare himself to deliver his first wartime speech when England declares war against Germany at the start of World War II; on the other hand, the title refers to the king's speaking ability, which is the subject of an ongoing therapeutic struggle. The story is simple and predictable; if you watched the preview trailer for the film, then you can already guess where the plot is going to go. Will King George and Lionel go from opponents to friends? Will King George successfully deliver his first wartime speech? Will a stiff, proper, and stereotypically repressed royal learn something about life from a tamped-down male version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? You get one guess.

Colin Firth often finds himself in cinematic territory that dangerously overlaps with that of Hugh Grant: he plays comical oafs with a heart of gold—well-intended people who stumble and fumble, but who always seem to manage in the end. The role of King George VI isn't much of a stretch for him in that sense, but the difference here is that Firth is tasked with trying to portray, in a clinically accurate manner, a man with a particular medical condition. Doing this without slipping into parody or outright broad comedy (think: Michael Palin's Ken in "A Fish Called Wanda") requires a light touch and utter command of one's speech organs, and I have to say that Firth pulls off the stutter magnificently. In my review of "The Theory of Everything," I praised Eddie Redmayne for his abilities as a physical actor; I gladly give the same level of praise to Colin Firth. Every time the words got caught in King George's throat, my own throat hitched sympathetically. Firth was that good.

Geoffrey Rush, as Lionel Logue, does a fine job playing an uncredentialed speech therapist whose unconventional techniques are nonetheless effective because of Logue's intuitive understanding of his patients, and thanks to Logue's experience as both an aspiring actor and a therapist for shell-shocked Australian war veterans. Logue might not have any letters after his name (as he notes at one point late in the movie), but he's the real deal, therapeutically speaking. Rush plays his side of the egoic tug-of-war perfectly. His Logue demands that he relate to the king on a first-name basis (King George's intimate nickname was apparently "Bertie," and Logue relentlessly addresses His Highness as such throughout the movie... alas, this aspect of the relationship was, in reality, almost undoubtedly exaggerated). That said, the movie's version of Logue does come off as something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Logue is cheerfully transgressive, in possession of knowledge about life and the self that the king desperately needs to learn. Logue's overall effect on the king is to make him loosen up, and ultimately to make him a better person.

Some comments on the other stars in the film are in order. Helena Bonham Carter plays her role as Queen Elizabeth with unwonted restraint. I'm so used to seeing her wigging out, Bellatrix Lestrange-style, that watching her staid performance here was a bit unnerving. Guy Pearce plays King George's unstable older brother King Edward VIII, who reigned only a few months before abdicating the throne to be with his true love, an American woman named Wallis Simpson. The movie implies (and perhaps this is historically accurate; I don't know) that Edward abdicated the throne because, as head of the Anglican Church, he would not have been able to marry Simpson, a woman who had already been divorced once, and who was seeking a divorce from her second husband. Pearce isn't on screen for long, but he acquits himself well. Unfortunately, now that I've seen pictures of George VI, I think Pearce and King George resemble each other more than Firth and King George do. My other problem with Pearce's casting was that he looked like Firth's/George's younger brother, not his older brother. Old, hoary greats were also roped in for important roles: Timothy Spall was a good Winston Churchill; Michael Gambon, with his distinctively resonant voice, played King George V, the father of the protagonist; Derek Jacobi did yeoman's work as Archbishop Cosmo Lang. It occurred to me that "The King's Speech" included half the cast from the Harry Potter movies; I half expected to see David Thewlis and Alan Rickman in minor roles.

"The King's Speech" was utterly predictable. The plot was simple, and once you understood the story's initial conditions, it was easy to see where the plot was headed. It was serviceable as a drama about two souls who go from opponents to friends, but the movie's saving grace is that it was a master class in acting given by Colin Firth, who very capably portrayed an important man crippled by a debilitating condition that made it a nightmare for him to appear in public. Overall, I'd say the movie was well worth my while: decent story, likable dramatis personae, and Colin Firth. I'll let more educated people talk about the historical accuracy of the movie, but as a drama, "The King's Speech" is engaging and watchable.

*I normally take stuttering to be a clinical condition, whereas stammering is something that happens to anyone who becomes confused and/or emotional. Hugh Grant, in many of his roles, is a cute-but-annoying stammerer; King George, as portrayed in this movie, is a stutterer. NB: some online sources disagree with my distinction, which may explain why "stutter" and "stammer" have such overlapping definitions in various dictionaries.


1 comment:

SJHoneywell said...

I rather like this movie. There's no question that this was the Academy's safe choice for Best Picture in 2010--it's not a better movie than The Social Network and it's certainly not better than Black Swan, both of which were likely too daring for the staid Academy. But I think it's an admirable film.

While the relationship between George VI and Logue is probably exaggerated to an extent, there is a great deal of reality to this. I've "read" (audiobook) the historical account of this, based on the notes and letters of the real Lionel Logue, and while a great deal of dramatic license is no doubt taken with the private conversations and personalities, the actual history is--to my knowledge--pretty accurate. The audiobook contains the actual recording of George VI's first wartime speech, and Firth does an admirable job of getting George's halting-yet-commanding speech down, all the way to the lacunae throughout.

Firth's great accomplishment here, in addition to his stuttering believably, is making George VI completely sympathetic. Rush's Logue is manic-pixie-ish, but I'm not that convinced he's terribly different from the real Logue. Logue, after all, did have knowledge that George needed and really did help him.