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18.1.11

For Your Consideration: 'The King's Speech'

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M. Logue and P. Conradi, The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy
Kings have always had to speak well, from the oratory of the Roman emperors to the courtesy of Machiavelli's The Prince to the wily tongue of Shakespeare's Richard III. However, when almost all real powers of a monarch have been assumed by a parliament, as they have been in Great Britain, the words of a king may be the most visible, even only, sign of their authority. As the House of Windsor quickly discovered over the course of the 20th century, radio and television and other mass media have magnified this last remaining role of the sovereign, almost entirely symbolic, but no less crucial to the maintenance of government and public hopes. (The President of the United States has a similar role to play in times of crisis.) The reigning queen, Elizabeth II, certainly had to recognize how important her words -- or lack thereof -- were in the weeks following the death of her daughter-in-law, the Princess of Wales, dramatized in Stephen Frears's outstanding film The Queen.

The magnificent movie The King's Speech relates a little-known, in fact intentionally hidden, part of the life of Elizabeth II's father, George VI, whose pronounced stammer impeded his ability to speak publicly. Mark Logue wrote a book of the same title, based on what he discovered in the journals of his grandfather, Lionel Logue, an Australian who turned his work helping shell-shocked World War I veterans into a career as a speech pathologist, before taking on his most famous patient. Logue's notes were also the basis of the film's excellent screenplay, written by David Seidler, whose last memorable work was the quirky Tucker. Director Tom Hooper, who also directed the television miniseries Elizabeth I, with Helen Mirren as the earlier Elizabeth, leads a cast composed of the cream of British acting in a note-perfect evocation of the monarchy and its surroundings in the early 20th century. In the movie, when the Duchess of York (the elegant Helena Bonham Carter) first speaks to Logue, under an assumed name, about treating her husband, Logue counsels her that perhaps her husband should change jobs to something that does not require public speaking. When she responds that he cannot, Logue asks wryly, "Indentured servitude?" The equally witty reply is "Something of the sort."

Colin Firth is equal parts prickly and charming as the Duke of York, the younger son of a stern father (the imposing Michael Gambon) who is never expected to come to the throne. Firth makes the Duke's stammer, and the shame and hurt pride that goes with it, both endearing and obvious, without crossing that easy-to-cross boundary into parody. It turns out that Bertie, as he is called by his family, is much better disposed to the crown than his playboy older brother (the suave Guy Pearce), who becomes king, only to abdicate out of love for a notorious American divorcee. The equally fine supporting cast includes Derek Jacobi as the imperious Archbishop of Canterbury; the regal Claire Bloom (among many other roles, Hera in the gloriously bad original Clash of the Titans) as Queen Mary, who cannot even bring herself to comfort her son at her husband's deathbed; and Timothy Spall hamming it up as Winston Churchill.


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The film hinges, however, on the antagonism between Firth and the Lionel Logue of Geoffrey Rush, a bristling class-inspired clash that warms into mutual admiration and friendship. If Firth appears on track to win an Academy Award -- he has been tipped as Best Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Golden Globes (the latter perhaps overshadowed by the controversial hosting of Ricky Gervais) -- Rush's performance seemed even subtler, creating a character who was certainly eccentric but also visionary, pushing the class boundary in search of a cure but also painfully aware of his place and devoted to the king. The role was a bit of a needle to thread, and Rush conveys the corniness of the man, who was a failed Shakespearean actor, as well as his sincerity, without ever making the portrayal campy. At an estimated budget of only $15 million, this film is yet another reminder that 3-D or CGI special effects have nothing on a well-crafted screenplay, clean direction, and a talented cast.

1 comment:

jill sawyer said...

Amen to everything you said. I saw the movie over the Christmas holiday--the theatre was packed and at the end, everyone stood up and applauded. When was the last time you saw THAT happen???