22 February 2011

First Impressions: The King's Speech

I love a good double-feature courtesy of lax movie security and a carefully timed bathroom visit. This is how I caught both The Fighter (2010) and The King's Speech (2010) this past Saturday Afternoon. Now you can check out my review of Mark's Opus here but today we're looking at what could very well be the Best Picture of the Year. Let's dive right in amidst the spoilers and mostly laughing at the swears:

The swears in this movie rule. The strings of proper Kingly English Profanity from time to time are consistently amusing and the only reason for this film to ever receive a rating stronger than PG. Now that we've got that giggling out of the way, maybe we can actually analyze this beast.

The King's Speech is a very British Movie. There's no questioning how it swept most of the BAFTAs. It's a tough look at both the role of the Monarchy in modern times as well as its relation to the common people. The cast also features some of the best actors across the realm, most of who have appeared in Harry Potter flicks at some point. We've got Dumbledore as King George V playing an excellent scary strict authority figure and later an equally excellent cat dying from Alzheimer's. Peter Pettigrew is actually pretty prestigious as Winston Churchill, who plays a small but vital role supporting the eponymous stutterer. Finally Bellatrix Lestrange plays Elizabeth, Duchess of York and later the queen. I wouldn't call her exceptional but that's only because she's very grounded. She plays her role subtly and it's refreshing to see how supportive and loving she is of her hubby's small yet significant vocal fallacy.

The cast keeps going from there. Guy Pearce shows up as Edward, Prince of Wales, the Duke's older, idler brother who eventually runs off to America to marry his twice-divorced mistress. Scandal! Finally the film really centers on the dynamic between an Australian import, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and the Duke of York himself, King George VI otherwise known as Bertie. Yay. Colin Firth is a lock for the Academy Award for his portrayal of Bertie and Rush may not be far behind though Christan Bale really has all he needs to win. So what makes Firth so great? It's tied very closely to the driving idea of the film, which is the very high importance of appearance.

When you first hear the premise of this film it seems kind of doofy. The poor King can't speak well, boo-hoo. There's a lot more to it than that though. The film demonstrates the Monarchy's unflinching stress towards appearing perfect to its subjects. Everything is formal and ritualised. As Bertie comments from his youth, he was forced to switch from his natural left to right hand, wear splits to correct his knob knees and naturally degraded into speaking properly (the latter didn't really catch somehow). The mere fact that the King requires something as trivial as Speech Therapy requires the ultimate discretion from those involved. It's that British sensibility at work. Society frowns upon grandiose emotional displays (even at a Father's deathbed) and Decorum prevails over all. By all means the people's view of the Royal Family is of utmost importance.

For this reason Edward VIII must abdicate after he falls in love with a Double-Divorcée American. This kind of thing may not be a huge deal in the States but the Monarchical Tradition abhors it, which leads to Bertie's ascension to the Throne. While a Speech Impediment is not grounds for abdication it certainly isn't a great feature for a Head of State whose role is mostly symbolic. Instead of inspiring his people Bertie has more often than not been pushed aside as a withering idiot who can't even speak.

As World War II approaches, the stakes rise. The stammering is a sign of low confidence. On the verge of another Great War the people needed their King to be strong. Bertie is actually impeccably strong but his inability to express himself holds him back despite his hard work, loyalty to country and wide knowledge of law and governance. Thus there is this continued stressed importance on something that people may not think of as that important. As the film progresses it's clear that the vocal challenge is both extremely difficult to overcome (partly due to a steady self-fulfilling prophecy) and extremely important to overcome. Thus as the Monarchy has always stressed appearance over anything else, it's clear that their inspirational and symbolic role is actually derived from appearance.

The film's narrative was somewhat similar to The Fighter in that the protagonist couldn't really pull off what he desperately needed to achieve until the climax. Micky Ward wins a legitimate championship and earns the Pride of Lowell. George VI delivers a speech on the Eve of War that inspires his people to remain standing against the Nazis. In both films this is after some extended frustrating sequences of the characters failing continuously.

Now I've barely talked about the relationship between Bertie and Lionel which makes up the majority of the film. Again, it's all about appearance. Lionel is no Doctor, something he only allows the King to believe. The difference in social status as well as Lionel's Australian Origins create some tension between him and Bertie (as well as others such as the Producers of the play Lionel auditions for). There's almost a bit of MPDG at work here actually. The characters are very clear cut and play off each other organically while continually dealing with immense pressure from outside forces such as the succession of Monarchs, family scandal and ultimately World War II.

It's a film that plays interestingly as a bit of underknown history (tho certainly more liberties were taken then with The Fighter but I don't have a problem with this at all when it furthers the effect of the narrative), displays incredible characters and acting, features impeccable Writing, Editing AND Sound Mixing. I believe it'll go toe to toe with any film in any of its twelve nominations except its Supporting Actors. Maybe not Cinematography either. It's close to both a technically, thematically and artistically perfect movie. It's also at times very funny.

With all this praise however, I actually find myself thinking about how its Legacy may develop. Will The Social Network (2010) and The King's Speech be like Ordinary People vs. Raging Bull (1980)? Terms of Endearment vs. The Right Stuff (1983)? Fuck tits, how about Dances with Wolves vs. Goodfellas (1990)? I'm not saying either film can really be snubbed because they're both exceptional, but whenever Goodfellas is on TV I stop everything else. That doesn't happen for Costner unless I've just seen AVABAR (2009) and want to compare notes. There is a lasting effect that some flicks have that I'm not sure The King's Speech possesses.

All we can do is wait I suppose. February 27 for starters.

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