Friday, December 10, 2010

Style and Substance: The King's Speech

The King’s Speech is one of those rare prestige productions; a rich meal without an ounce of stuffing. The picture delves instead beneath the formality of good taste and into the substance of compelling dramatic conflict. Director Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams, The Damned United) cleverly draws from the psychological underpinnings of classic drama where acting a role becomes part of the process of self-discovery. He applies that process to the study of an unlikely friendship between Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an unfulfilled Australian actor turned speech therapist, hired by Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Albert’s wife, to cure her husband’s speech impediment. The picture, which sparkles with wit and intelligence, may have a conventional structure, but the story undoes the refuge of convention. The unorthodox means by which Lionel transforms Albert’s stammer into clear, eloquent diction is heightened by both personal and historical events. The resolution of that personal conflict offers no hiding place from the dark days ahead as Britain enters the Second World War.

One of the illuminating aspects of The King’s Speech is how it uncovers the change in perspective towards world leaders brought on by the rapidly changing technology. They were no longer ornamental figures who could hide behind a pen. Through electronic tools, they were now being required to speak as well. If the ravings of Adolph Hitler – broadcast on radio and by microphone at large rallies – could stir a nation to reckless, destructive warfare, there had to be voices of sanity that could both console and rally a nation to defend itself from aggression. The King’s Speech reveals a humbled man who has to step into a role, a part for which he feels ill-suited, to command the authenticity to lead.

Although the picture treads into the familiar territory of British class issues, The King’s Speech offers a fresh outlook. The movie examines class conflict rather than presenting it. It probes into an alliance between the two men that is uneasy from the start because Lionel moves into the psychological bedrock of Albert’s speech problems. Albert is initially insolated from public humiliation because his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) succeeds his father King George V (Michael Gambon). But when Edward abdicates his responsibilities by marrying an American socialite, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), and develops a laissez-faire attitude towards the creeping fascism in Europe, Albert has no choice but to take the throne. Hooper (through a perceptively terrific script by David Seidler) weds that social dynamic to the personal battles between Albert and Lionel.

Colin Firth as Darcy 
Years earlier, I wouldn’t have thought that quest for authenticity would be fully believable in the hands of Colin Firth. In Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2000), Firth’s reserve as an actor often snuffed out any spark of life. His holding back usually made him dull and mannered. Although many of my female friends swooned over his Mr. Darcy in the 1995 television production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it was likely because he misinterpreted Darcy’s inarticulateness as a sign of the character’s quiet smoldering sexuality. (Darcy was conceived by Austen however as a man incapable of revealing his deeper desires.) But Firth has been recently doing more to dip into what lies beneath the reserve of characters he once played solely on the surface - especially as the grief-stricken father in the still commercially unreleased 2008 film Genova. In The King’s Speech, Firth uncorks a buried passion that leaves cracks in the armour of Albert’s staid demeanor. It’s the best screen performance he’s given to date. He also has the perfect foil in Geoffrey Rush whose Lionel is a man in love with the stage, but an actor who can only fulfill that love through the transformation of a solitary man at odds with who he is. Rush gives a lively theatrical performance with lovely gradations of poignancy. (Lionel knows that the cure won’t solve the problems facing the world.)

Geoffrey Rush
The King’s Speech likely won’t find much favour among cinephiles who may perceive (wrongly, I believe) the movie’s prestigious approach as “conservative” or “tasteful.” What they miss, due to lack of exposure, or interest, is the film’s stylistic ties to the use of artifice in classical theatre. But Hooper doesn’t draw from that artifice with a desire to condescend to the viewer by using sentimentality as a prop for inspiration. There’s a touching aspect instead to this odd-couple friendship, especially when, with Lionel's help, Albert (as King George VI) delivers the 1939 radio broadcast where he speaks to Britain as it enters into war with Germany. The Royal leader addresses the nation in the intimate manner that he also speaks to his newly found friend, this aspiring actor who found his calling and his art in his friendship with a humble man who would be King. The humility and peace in that companionship helps momentarily to salve their own wounds. But as The King's Speech also sharply suggests, it prepares us, too, for the horror that follows.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see http://revuecinema.ca/programs/film-noir).

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