Friday, March 4, 2011

In Defense of The King's Speech

Why defend The King’s Speech, one of the most acclaimed films of 2010?  If anything, the film has been overrated in many ways, sweeping the Academy Awards and winning the Best Picture category over more stylish and energetic movies such as Black Swan, The Social Network, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone.  The King’s Speech had been relentlessly promoted as an Oscar favorite ever since its premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, making it nearly impossible for professional critics to avoid framing their reviews around whether the film was worthy of such prestige.  Unsurprisingly, this has led a number of industry commenters to have knee-jerk reactions to The King’s Speech, some falling in line with the publicity and declaring it the best film of the year (and thereby overrating it) and some rejecting the film based on the negative baggage associated with award season (and thereby underrating it).  While the immediate association of The King’s Speech with the Academy Awards undoubtedly helped it at the box-office, it has also irrevocably clouded its public perception, making it difficult to arrive at a sane assessment of the film’s actual merit.

In fairness to those leading the backlash against The King’s Speech, the film undeniably has a number of qualities that make it seem, on the surface, like awards-bait.  It is a historical drama about the Duke of York (Colin Firth) who gradually overcomes his speech defect with the help of charismatic and lovable speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  Firth and Rush aren’t the only high-fallutin’ British thespians in the cast, which also includes such ringers as Helena Bonham Carter (as the Duke’s wife), Michael Gambon (as the Duke’s father, King George V), and Guy Pearce (the Duke’s elder brother, who resigns from the throne to marry a twice-divorced American socialite).  The simply told story becomes, predictably enough, an inspirational tale of a man overcoming his fears and bravely leading Great Britain into the Second World War.

But director Tom Hooper and his collaborators wisely sidestep most of the negative trappings of the “prestige picture” by standing out of the way and simply telling their story.  The King’s Speech may have been endlessly promoted by the Weinstein Company as an Oscar-worthy masterpiece, but the film itself is admirably modest and unencumbered by pretensions to greatness.  The filmmakers also smartly avoid the usual biopic problem of trying to condense too much of its subject’s story into two hours by focusing on a very specific element of the Duke’s life rather than attempting to be a definitive biography. Watching the film, one doesn’t have the impression that the filmmakers were straining to make a world-beating timeless classic so much as they were interested in telling a compelling personal story.

This lack of ambition obviously prevents The King’s Speech from being the greatest film of last year – indeed, with the exception of The Kids Are All Right, it is easily the least ambitious of the ten films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Yet Hooper and co.’s straightforward, almost play-like depiction of the story is undoubtedly the right approach to this material.  If the film gives off a feeling of reserved, old-fashioned mustiness, it’s only because that type of atmosphere is as appropriate to the film’s story and setting as The Social Network’s high-tech flashiness was to its tale of young software entrepreneurs, or as Black Swan’s operatic camp was to its story of psychological intrigue at the ballet.  There is no indication that Hooper would be able to handle the cinematographic and editorial flash that David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky bring to their respective films, and it is a little ridiculous that he defeated those more innovative filmmakers for the Best Director Oscar.  Still, Hooper’s restraint is the logical aesthetic for The King’s Speech’s story, and he deserves some credit for keeping the story’s potential for melodrama under control and staying out of the way of his talented cast (though the director’s one auteurist touch – his occasional habit of framing the characters in corners of cinematographer Danny Cohen’s attractive wide angle compositions – is a tad distracting and unnecessary).

And that cast is very talented.  Firth handles the Duke’s speech defect with realistic frustration, reserves of long-building anger present in his every vocal inflection.  He also doesn’t labor too hard to make his character likeable, a palpable sense of entitlement effectively offsetting his occasionally charming sarcasm.  Geoffrey Rush is equally good as the speech instructor, showing just enough hints of his usual over-the-top hamminess to suggest his character’s theatrical ambitions, yet holding himself back enough to remind the viewer that he is playing a real human being.  The film is essentially a two-man show, but Bonham Carter, Gambon, and Pearce each turn in vivid character sketches that allow the film to subtly suggest aspects of the Duke’s psychology without having to underline them too much in the dialogue. 

When the Duke - recently promoted to King after his father’s passing and his brother’s abandonment of the throne – finally delivers his big speech announcing Great Britain’s entry into World War II, it is a genuinely stirring moment both because the acting is so strong and because the film has spent so much time focusing exclusively on the relationship between Firth and Rush’s characters.  (Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that it’s a great speech).  It is a powerful climactic moment that underscores how wrongheaded the inevitable backlash against The King’s Speech is.  If anything, that type of criticism should be directed at the Weinstein Company for framing the film as a “prestige picture,” or toward the Academy for being so susceptible to a certain type of film.  The King’s Speech is not the best film of 2010, or even a particularly great one, but it is a very good movie that deserves to be appreciated on its own terms rather than in the context of the awards season.

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