Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 07, 2010 9:57 pm 
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There'll always be an England: the tongue-tied monarch

In England stuttering has been an upper-class, public school gesture, "the Eton stutter." But the real thing is a severe affliction, perhaps caused by childhood traumas. Albert, or Bertie (this movie strives to make its royal protagonist just folks like you or me), the Duke of York, had a terrible case, with probable causes. Growing up dominated by his harsh, condescending father King George V he was forced to wear painful leg braces to cure knock knees and, a born leftie, compelled to become right-handed. The age of loudspeakers and radio has come, public speeches by royal personages are essential, and in his -- we see one at Wembley Stadium -- Bertie has a crippling stammer that makes his utterances as painful for listeners as for him. The King's Speech concerns his efforts to overcome this affliction with the help of an eccentric Australian therapist who enables him to perform the public speaking duties of the English monarch and in particular to give a crucial radio address. This satisfying climax comes when he's King George VI, his flighty older brother Edward having abdicated to marry the twice-divorced American "woman I love." Hitler is menacing Europe, England has declared itself to be at war with Germany. The King must give a solemn radio pep-talk. It is the essential morale-booster that, with a bit of help from Winston Churchill, will motivate his loyal subjects to last out the long hard war. And, with his Australian therapist, now a friend, alone with him in a studio, he does it. Bravo!

The King's Speech is in many ways a terrific movie, grand, rich, yet admirably focused and simple. It bids fair to parallel the art house success of Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan's triumphant The Queen. The writing, by David Seidler, would make a pretty good play. The filmmakers have added things you can't get onto a stage, even on Broadway -- posh black cars inching through thick fog; the ancient grandeur of Westminster Abbey; the royal apartments; Balmoral Castle; and the noble, if unwieldy, accoutrements of early radio. Tariq Anwar has cunningly edited the scene of the final speech to show both Bertie struggling and triumphing and all England listening, soldiers and citizens moved to uphold the dignity of the British Empire.

As Bertie, following up on his dramatic breakthrough in A Single Man, Colin Firth gives a performance that's both technically and humanly impressive. As his wife, Helena Bonham Carter reveals a polish and composure that, since The Wings of the Dove, we'd forgotten she had, even if she she can't quite match the scary gravitas of Claire Bloom's royally off-putting Queen Mother. As the speech therapist Lionel Logue, Geoffrey Rush is a strong if transparently theatrical presence. His usual hamminess is both appropriate (Logue was a would-be actor) and mitigated here (perhaps inspired by his tongue-tied patient) by moments of stillness that allow his scenes with Firth more often to speak for themselves and draw our attention on the two men's growing bond. We have an A-list English backup cast with people like Derek Jakobi, Michael Gambon, Anthony Andrews, Timothy Spall in relatively minor roles. Yes, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stanley Baldwin, and Winston Churchill are minor roles, because this is first and foremost the story of the therapist and his royal patient.

It''s a rousing tale, one heightened by Alexandre Desplat's stately selections of classical music and Danny Cohen's eye-filling images of the magnificent settings. And yet for all the solemn majesty, it's also a tale that's curiously peripheral to the great events going on in the world at the time. Bertie (Logue insists there must be no titles) is aware of his own irrelevance. The Empire is beginning to crumble. The pettiness of the English throne is illustrated by the way Michael Gambon, as George V, treats his two sons like children, and Edward, Prince of Wales, runs around with that Baltimorean hussy, Wallis Warfield Simpson, whose pursuit he finds more important than playing king. This is sketched in well enough, and might be a better, more historically resonant, story.

The King's Speech is a succession of flashy set pieces, each one vying for attention and bidding you to forget the ones that came before. Bertie's attempts to speak are always painfully attention-getting, and so are the therapy sessions. There are occasional sweet exceptions, as when he manages to tell a bedtime story to his young daughters, Margaret and the future queen, Elizabeth. Logue is a sort of non-U Henry Higgins. He has no credentials, only solid success with shell-shocked men struck dumb in WWI. He insists that for the treatments it's "My game, my castle, my rules." Bertie and the Duchess of York must come to Logue's large but rough-looking flat in a bad part of London, and he and Logue must address each other as equals. Bertie must learn to do mouth and stomach exercises, sing and curse in a big, nearly empty, high-ceilinged room (like an empty stage) with a wall of torn-up wallpaper and a battered brass tea kettle and beat up but once nice sofa that are more memorable than the conversations in the royal household. These are the most original scenes. But Lionel and Bertie bickering in Canterbury Cathedral is pretty good, and so is Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), now King Edward VII, talking to Bertie about how he's been "kinging" while running down to the cellar of Balmoral Castle to fetch Wallis a magnum of the oldest and best champagne. The future Duke of Windsor comes across as a real idiot, which may not be far from the mark. He's a feckless party boy who's all too soft on Hitler.

It's hardly a coincidence that the director, Tom Hooper, won high praise last year for his football biopic The Damned United. The disparate elements of The King's Speech cohere because David Seidler's screenplay follows the simple trajectory of a sports movie. The royal stutterer's struggle parallels the kind of movie in which a plucky athlete overcomes a severe handicap through true grit and the help of an inspiring coach to win a race, a match, or a medal. The King's award is everyone's admiration when he toughs it out and gives a rousing address. Colin Firth's Bertie is admirable, yet pathetic. He's a royal underdog, seemingly a hopeless fellow who never expects to become king. In the fight to overcome his handicap he gives up several times, but he gets back to it; and unlike his brother he sticks to "kinging." The King's actual speech (BBC Archives) and a film of his address on VE Day show he was smoother -- and Logue's accomplishment perhaps much greater -- than the film, in its effort to dramatize the struggle, would make it appear.

Has this movie got anything profound to say about handicaps, or England in the twentieth century, or WWII? I don't think so. But like a good sports movie, it makes you cry and then want to cheer. It's got beautiful cinematography, a well-made script, fine acting by a blue chip cast, and it's catnip to Anglophiles. Especially in this not-so-great year, it's clearly one of the best-of-season dramatic features. But Anthony Lane awakens a fatal doubt when he suggests what a different film we might have had if Alan Bennett had written the screenplay or, to make the ironies draw real blood, if Harold Pinter had done the job. Thoughts of such possibilities make one realize this is a good, not great, piece of work.


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