Thursday, February 3, 2011

Movie Review: The King's Speech (2010)

William Shakespeare had a lot of problems. He had to write astonishingly good poetry and prose, or starve. He had to be funny, compelling, romantic, historically credible, sometimes all at once. But of all the challenges confronted by the Bard, surely the highest was that of how to tell a story about royalty in such a way that his everyman-audience could give a damn. Fortunately for the rest of us, the everyman-audience for whom he was writing was galvanized by a commoner’s lustful appetite to see the overambitious brought low. Shakespeare’s currency, in other words, was comeuppance.

What then to make of Tom Hooper’s film about the eventual World-War-Two-era British monarch George the sixth, and our instant connection with that stammering, insecure, quintessentially reluctant royal—a man so under-ambitious that he was all but physically thrust onto the throne by his brother’s abdication? Well, the short answer is—everything.

Collin Firth is Albert—Bertie to his closest family and the friends of whom he has none—at the film’s mid-thirties outset the Duke of York, younger brother of Edward, son of George the fifth. He stammers. He stammers so badly that at the 1936 European Cup, he is unable to continue. In times previous the solution would’ve simply been not to speak. But now Britons, like their cousins across the pond, have been swept-up in a sugar-high addiction to the just-invented mass communication tool that threatens to wreck Albert’s cozy anonymity, radio.

Helena Bonham Carter is Elizabeth, the stoic-but-not-stuffy wife and duchess whose mission to find the expert who can help her husband is clearly driven by the mundane desire not to see him any-more-humiliated. After a series of false starts, the quest brings her to the disarmingly negative-spaced office of one Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, a quirky Australian retread whose passionate insistence on egalitarian informality immediately sets all involved—including us—to wondering just how this is going to work.

After some obligatory posturing Logue takes the job, at least to the extent that his patient will permit the indignity of administration. Thence do their meetings careen across a galaxy of mutually cautious transactions, with Firth’s Albert somehow regal and indignant without being inaccessible, and Rush’s Logue somehow confident and assertive without being cheeky. Bit by bit, at times almost imperceptibly, Albert makes progress.

All around him his dream of passing into historical obscurity is much less imperceptibly falling apart. Even before his father the King has passed away, the nascent British tabloids have begun feasting on the decidedly un-regal romantic interests of Albert’s older brother Edward, played by Guy Pearce—the man whom, in Shakespeare’s time, this whole business would surely have been about. Worse, or at least just as bad, is Edward’s self-evident lack of conviction regarding the rising threat of totalitarianism on the continent. “Ah, Heir Hitler will sort them all out,” he mutters over his shoulder, in one particularly telling and no doubt tonally authentic moment of unbecoming candor.

With the final outbreak of war, even Edward himself realizes he is too compromised and abdicates—whereupon Albert finds himself George the sixth, quite literally at the very moment that his subjects, far and wide, need to hear him speak clearly, lucidly, and firmly inhabiting his capacity as the head of a now mortally imperiled state. It is not obvious that he can do this. Neither is it obvious how Britain will literally survive it if he does not.

If the power-embracing and ultimately self-destructive Edward and his love-interest Wallice Simpson stand as anachronistic prototypes of the Shakespearean royal, then surely the unfussy genius of Tom Hooper’s film lies in just how perfectly the would-be-alien plight of George VI strums the sensibilities and dramas of the modern bourgeoisie.

All of us doubt ourselves, true enough. All of us from time to time find ourselves asked to do things we are fairly certain that we cannot do. All of us sometimes fail, and when we do, all of us turn to our closest loved ones for our foundation of support. But what connects us so profoundly to this peerless film is the other thing that happens. The thing that happens next. The thing that happens when all of us—from the cubicle worker in Pamona to the King of England—look inside ourselves, urgently, hopefully, not quite sure what we will find, and discover there a small, gently turning crystal of potential, its facets glinting in the light of our resolve.

The Key Grip gives The King’s Speech five bald heads, his highest rating.


Julie (Poncier) Stewart said...

After reading this, I know now it is a must-see. Thanks for your incredibly well-written movie review. In particular, the last paragraph is my favorite.

Dave O'Gorman said...

Thanks for your kind words, and mozel tov! ;-)