Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Oscars 2011: 'The King's Speech'? Really?

If you don't already know all the results from Sunday night's Academy Awards show then I'd suggest you check out the full list on Deadline, but I'll summarise it for you here anyway. The night was dominated by the towering mediocrity that is 'The King's Speech', which scooped both of (what should be considered) the major gongs, bagging Best Picture and Best Director (for Tom Hooper). It also snared Colin Firth a well-deserved statuette for his eye-catching performance as the film's titular stammering monarch.

The plucky British film is certainly an amiable enough winner, with endearing lead performances and some deft repartee in its (now Oscar winning) screenplay. It is ridiculously popular too, having just broken the £40 million barrier at the UK box office - which is a huge sum - and earning long standing ovations wherever it has played (including 20-plus minutes in Berlin last month). I personally enjoyed the film too, albeit with reservations about its handling of history and romantic portrayal of the house of Windsor (as reluctant "indentured servants" serving an expectant, fawning public). But aren't award ceremonies supposed to reward "art" and not just pander to commerce? Isn't commerce its own reward?

OK, to clarify: I'm not suggesting 'The King's Speech' isn't "art" or that it only won because it has out-grossed its major rivals - 'The Social Network', 'Black Swan' and 'The Fighter' - and on a smaller budget (reportedly around £8 million). I'm just saying that the film is inoffensive, establishment fluff and that the virtuosity of its making pales in comparison with many of the other nominated movies. Possibly all nine of them. It's like a pleasant TV movie. It's like an HBO film that would quietly win a bunch of Golden Globes before disappearing into obscurity. Except it is apparently now considered the best piece of cinema of the last twelve months... and this makes me sad.

For instance, Darren Aronofsky's 'The Black Swan' is a more deserving candidate: a perfect synthesis of sound and image that cuts deeply into you emotionally and takes you to places you don't necessarily want to go. It's perfectly paced, with not a single unnecessary moment, as it manages to be both beautiful and horrifying in equal measure. Is Darren Aronofsky a better filmmaker than Tom Hooper? Almost certainly. At the very least, his next film will be interesting even if it is a 'Wolverine' sequel. Is there any guarantee that Hooper will ever again scale these heights? No. Yet he also beat David Fincher to the Best Director prize.

'The King's Speech' is a glossy, mum-pleaser of a film about an imagined past - in which Churchill was a staunch supporter of George VI and where Edward VIII pro-Nazi leanings can all be blamed on acceptable, establishment-sanctioned hate figure Wallis Simpson. But Fincher's 'The Social Network' is relevant and looks at the world we live in now. It justly won Best Adapted Screenplay for writer Aaron Sorkin, but it could and should have received so much more for its tightly handled, restrained camera work that turned a 'film about Facebook', mostly concerning nerds arguing with lawyers, into a dark and compelling thriller of Shakespearian proportions. I say with some certainty that filmmakers will still be referring to 'The Social Network' in several years time, whilst 'The King's Speech' will likely be consigned to mentions in dry academic books on heritage cinema.

It all reminds me of when 'Shakespeare in Love' beat 'Saving Private Ryan' to Best Picture in 1998. Spielberg's WWII movie, whatever you may think of it, will stand the test of time even if only for its jarring opening twenty minutes. Whereas nobody watches or talks about or even vaguely remembers the John Madden directed 'Shakespeare in Love' now, let alone in fifty or one hundred years. Incidentally 'Shakespeare in Love' and 'The King's Speech' have one major thing in common which could be said to account for the 'unlikely' success of both: the backing of Harvey Weinstein. A notoriously hard campaigner when it comes to winning Academy Awards with Miramax and now with The Weinstein Company, Harvey and his younger brother Bob have again fought to the last minute to lobby for votes in Hollywood. It is no exaggeration to say that without their backing 'The King's Speech' would not even have been on the radar of many voters.

The Weinsteins know what they are doing and, although they are obsessively keen to promote themselves as producers of 'prestige' films, this Oscar payload will earn them and 'The King's Speech' many more millions. Especially after the heavy-weight producers (no strangers to feuds with the MPAA) agreed to cut some of the film's comedy upper-class swearing in order to facilitate a PG-13 certificate re-release stateside. And so whilst The Daily Mail heralded the film's Oscar success by saying "for once Oscars night belonged to a small budget, independent movie that was a labour of love", 'The King's Speech' is far more powerful and successful than the underdog-favouring British press would like to admit amongst all the self-congratulatory anti-Hollywood vitriol.

This brings me back to my "art vs. commerce" point. 'The King's Speech' is benefiting from sailing in that perfect storm of being inoffensive enough that it was universally liked, whilst also being a commercial success story. The fact that it's about kings and queens is also a bonus, of course. But shouldn't the Academy award films based on artistic merit alone? Well, I guess that's subjective in any case and you could, rightly, point out that the Academy did exactly that. Not everyone has to agree with me that 'The Social Network' and 'Black Swan' were far and away the superior examples of the art form. Yet I feel that is the case and quite strongly, with Sunday's result feeling to me like a depressing one for cinema.

It's also a depressing win for the British film industry as a whole. No it seriously is - or at least should be. 'The King's Speech' is one of the last films to have been backed by the now defunct UK Film Council and so it seems that this oh-so-establishment film is, ironically and quite accidentally, also one in the eye for the budget-cutting Tories. Some have even expressed concern that this might be the high-point before a long period of woe for British film. In any case, I think it's depressing for UK film for another reason entirely: 'The King's Speech' is arguably the single least relevant of the ten Best Picture nominees.

Consider the other nine. 'Winter's Bone' is the kind of 'gritty' social realism, about poverty and strife, that Britain used to be famous for. 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3' are both examples of state of the art visual effects and exciting story telling on a huge (dare I say 'cinematic') scale. 'The Kids Are All Right' is a thoroughly modern story about something parts of America still has huge problems with, as it follows a homosexual couple raising their two children. '127 Hours', directed by another British Academy Award winner Danny Boyle, is also based on real-life events and yet it is a contemporary story filmed in an (in my opinion excessively) vibrant, high-octane, fast-cutting style.

Boxing biopic 'The Fighter', like 'Winter's Bone', also makes a feature of white American poverty oft-unseen in popular culture, whilst the Coen brother's Western 'True Grit' may be more firmly rooted in the past than 'The King's Speech' in terms of its setting, but its cinematography and production design is among the very best around. I've already made the case for 'Black Swan' and 'The Social Network'.

I bear 'The King's Speech' no ill will whatsoever; not that I fancy my ill will would be of the least concern to the film's makers in any case. It's a perfectly enjoyable Sunday afternoon kind of movie. "Nan is coming round" you may at some point say, "lets stick 'The King's Speech' on." It's 'nice'. It is, as James Franco said, 'safe'. But just don't expect me to believe that it's a peak example of the art form I love and that which the Academy Awards are supposed to celebrate.

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