Friday, 19 November 2010

CINECITY: 'The King's Speech' review:

When Jeff Bridges won the Oscar for Best Actor at this year's Academy Awards, for his turn in 'Crazy Heart', Colin Firth was considered to be the unlucky loser. In truth, after picking up every award going en route to that ceremony, the Oscar was always going to go to Bridges on the night - a fact Firth himself repeatedly acknowledged in the run up - but there were many who felt that it ought to have gone to the English actor for his compelling performance as a suicidal, homosexual professor in Tom Ford's 'A Single Man'. Yet there is a feeling that it could be second time lucky for Firth who has, seemingly undeterred by that defeat, brushed himself down and taken another swing at it right away, playing the role of King George VI in the award-baiting historical drama 'The King's Speech'.

Firth, along with his director Tom Hooper ('The Damned United') and co-stars Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush, will have every reason to approach next year's ceremony with confidence following the film's enthusiastic response in Toronto where it was bestowed the audience award. In the last few year's winners of that award have included the likes of 'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'Precious' and there is a growing feeling that Firth - and quite possibly his co-stars - are due to be, at the very least, among the names nominated.

'The King's Speech' is inspired by real life events that apparently saw the stammering man who would be king, Prince Albert ("Bertie" to his mates), seek out the help of every speech therapist in the Kingdom in an attempt to improve his public speaking. Just when he has abandoned all hope at ever finding a cure, his dedicated wife (Bonham Carter as the Queen Mum) tracks down an unorthodox Australian by the name of Lionel Logue (Rush) who swears he can correct the royals speech - so long as the treatment is done on his terms as with his other (more common) patients. To complicate matters, Bertie's speech impediment becomes a greater concern as his brother Edward's (Guy Pearce) relationship with an American divorcée brings him unexpectedly to the throne.

Also looming in the background is the spectre of the Second World War and the Nazi's charismatic leader Adolf Hitler. When watching a newsreel of the dictator speaking at a rally, Bertie's daughter Elizabeth (the future queen) asks "what is he saying papa?" "I don't know, but he seems to be saying it rather well." It is vital then that in the mass media age Bertie must not only speak, but be able to inspire an Empire that spans the globe. But alongside these lofty concerns sits a personal story - that of the fraught friendship between two men of very different backgrounds: Bertie and Lionel.

The resultant film is, at best, a thematic mess that (as with many biographical films) indulges in cod psychology as it explores its subject. The films feeling towards the Windsor clan is a little confused. On one hand there are frequent (and fairly funny) jokes made at the expense of the upper class: "your physicians are idiots" chides Lionel. "They've all be knighted!" replies Bertie incredulously. "That makes it official then" responds the Australian. There are also numerous moments where the royals very real contempt for the average person comes into full view, and other moments where they seem downright horrid to one another. But ultimately the film is rather smitten with these characters and its treatment of the royal clan is nostalgic and sometimes downright celebratory. Even the Nazi sympathising of Bertie's brother David (the disgraced King Edward VIII) is never really dealt with explicitly. It is alluded to at several points, but 'The King's Speech' is so set on pleasing the establishment that it avoids too much unsavoury history.

Perhaps the film is especially troubling coming now, at a time of economic crisis where the tax payer is apparently due to pick up the bill for a wealthy young billionaires wedding, as it continues to peddle a number of unpalatable myths. At one point the Queen Mum-to-be likens the heavy burden of royal obligation to a form of indentured servitude - admittedly in jest, but the lines humour comes from its perceived truth: that these noble people are in some way suffering a life of slavish public service (jetting around the world waving at people and occasionally posing for photos whilst skiing).

In some sense, the narrative's central problem is also ever so slightly pathetic. The king must labour to read aloud a speech that he hasn't written, about events he will play no practical part in shaping. He literally just has to say the words. And he can't do that. His only bloody job. I'm not intending to sound glib or churlish about those with speech impediments, including George VI who I am sure possessed some measure of courage and a certain steely resolve in order to speak publicly. But the great historical and social weight placed on this personal struggle sums up our supposed love affair with our supposed betters. "Well done!" we are geared up to gamely cheer as the very well kept and expensively educated monarch learns to pronounce his 'P' sounds. Honestly, good for him. But let's not hold a street party.

As infuriating as that premise might be though, it is one which is carried off with disarming humour. Straight after the ultimate speech, his first wartime radio address, Lionel tells Bertie "you still stuttered on the 'W'" to which the king replies "I had to throw a few of them in so they knew it was me". It is to the credit of everyone involved that this film remains affable, watchable and entertaining from start to finish in spite of its royalist ways. Geoffrey Rush is especially likable and funny, whilst Firth is again in good form. His stutter is consistent and improves subtly throughout the film. Structurally it seems to take a wrong turn when the last half hour seems to build to two climaxes (the coronation and the radio address) but it is generally well paced stuff and decently executed stuff.

It is also sometimes "a little bit Richard Curtis", when moments of comedy come entirely out of the sound of an upper class English twit using words like "tits", "willy" and "shit". In fact, Firth is in a couple of scenes required to string together great reams of "fucks" and "buggers" during his sessions with Rush's therapist. Despite this heavy use of profanity the BBFC awarded the film a '12A' certificate, even though 'Made in Dagenham' was earlier this year controversially awarded a '15' for use of the same swear words. This has led to allegations of classism against the BBFC, who many commentators suppose have seen upper class swearing as non-threatening and funny, whilst working class swearing is violent and even potentially revolutionary. Whatever the truth behind that accusation (and I certainly see some) this particular humorous element felt cheap.

Whether or not the film's decent performances are going to prove Oscar winning, we'll find out next year. I certainly don't think the films romanticised picture of the monarchy will be much of a problem for American audiences and it is precisely the sort of backwards looking, period fare that sells all too well in the colonies, for whatever reason. Is Firth's performance here better than that which graced screens earlier this year in 'A Single Man'? Well, no. But more than a few have picked up Oscars for far less, often the year after a perceived snub. With no overwhelmingly clear favourite yet established for next year's Best Actor award, this is perhaps Firth's best chance to grab the glory. If he does, brace yourself for the inevitable stutter joke during his acceptance speech...

'The King's Speech' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is due out on January 7th in the UK.

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