REVIEW: The King’s Speech

118 Minutes // UK // The Weinstein Company

director: Tom Hooper // writer: David Seidler
Saturday, September 11th, 2010 – Toronto International Film Festival (Ryerson)
starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush & Helena Bonham Carter

At the Q+A session that followed my screening of The King’s Speech at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Tom Hooper made a point of saying that just as the script (written by David Seidler) felt its most complete and the workshop between Tom Hooper and leading men Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush was about to take place, Hooper had been informed that one of Lionel Logue’s descendants had come across a treasure trove of diaries in his attic. Amidst the excitement of finding lost documents where there were previously none, Hooper seemingly supplemented intriguing subplots involving King George and brother Edward along with a few other stories in an attempt to fit his feature with as many historical accuracies as possible, all while keeping the film trim and running with a time under two hours. While The King’s Speech is as concise and coherent a narrative as most films dying for Oscar consideration are, there is an obvious hole that had to be filled that neither Hooper, nor Seidler, nor Firth, nor anybody on set could successfully fill. This hole, or most of it anyway, consists of the dormancy that keeps a viewer from being challenged in any thought or emotionally oriented way. If not that, then the viewer’s need to be allowed to concurrently view a film and digest it as opposed to being force fed. Hooper’s latest deals out none of these offerings with the primary source of detriment being firmly placed on the director/writer collective – Tom Hooper and David Seidler.

Readied with an abundance of close-ups, the character study of a man’s struggle to achieve coherency and liberate himself from the shackles of an embarrassed confinement is all too apparent. While Firth’s emotionally seductive eyes in the leading role amplify the wrought soul of King George VI to as modestly palpable a level as one would expect from the great actor, it feels almost too easy. There is seldom room for interpretation when reading into Firth’s performance because Danny Cohen’s work as cinematographer suffocates the viewer into experiencing Firth so personally. Be it one of the many times his eyes puff up as if on the verge of shameful tears or a stray abhorrent sneer that pontificates his abjection-turned-anger, Firth’s performance – as well as Rush’s, as well as Carter’s – is placed thoroughly on a platter for viewers to eat up as promptly as Hooper could say “Bon Appetit!”

This proves challenging, if somewhat brave, for the film. Challenging because how can you expect to assiduously play to a viewer’s amusement when you’re telling them what is amusing, what is tragic, and what is hopeful as immediately as you project it? Brave because the closeups add an intimacy between viewer and character on a very basic, very human level on an overwhelmingly consistent basis. And while, sure, there is ne’er an opportunity where one could see one of George’s expressions and think anything other than what is ought to be thought, there is a charm in the blatancy that is hard to resist – especially when Firth’s somberness goes beyond sympathetic and the self-loath that his stuttering agitates transforms viewer from patron of the cinema to mother or father to King George, if only for a moment. While he may not cry, the viewer may feel inclined to because although the theatrics of such a performance may feel tempting — even though he does give into those temptations on a few occasions — Firth micromanages his emotions and remains true to the man he is portraying… presumably against the desire Hooper’s cacophonous vision.

I may appear too hard on Tom Hooper for how the material is handled, but I believe it’s for good reason. At the same time, I’m not trying to suggest that Hooper is without talent. Have you seen last year’s The Damned United? There was a film that was handled with interest. Breathable cinematography that distanced itself just far enough away from the gaze of its protagonist to be slightly ambiguous in the thought that accompanied his expressions, very down to Earth picturization of its characters – all of whom were represented first and foremost as people (not theatrical ideals of mummery) and a story that, although predictable as all hell, had subplots that amounted to a commendable catharsis. Was that film by any means amazing? No, but Hooper’s direction with Sheen’s airy expressions facilitated the emotional latency necessary for the film to be dramatically captivating. In The King’s Speech, there is only one section with which I say was “directed well,” and this would be a scene where George confronts brother — and then King — Edward (Guy Pearce).

This is a scene that tackles many ideas and emotions at once while not having the camera fixated on the men and their expressions (Cohen must’ve been fixing the zoom button on his camera at the time). In this scene, viewers will find it nearly impossible to pin Edward’s franticness to one thought. Of course his behavior is due to his having taken the throne after his father’s passing, but what is causing this petrification? Are the duties too much for him to handle? Does he understand his hedonistic freedoms have been seized? Is he struggling to cope with the recent passing of his father? It could be one of dozens of things, if not a combination of them, but Pearce’s work in this scene is brilliant because we take from the character what we wish. A stray gaze here, a tearful pat on George’s shoulder there – it all amounts to a moment that is not quite esoteric, but thankfully one with some great thought behind it. In juxtaposition, we learn almost none of this about George. We do not see him battle the pressures of becoming King amidst an unruly time (the second World War); there is no subplot involving his family that could have added to his emotional exhaustion (or at the very least given Helena Bonham Carter something to do in her most casual, and therefore unremarkable performance to date); there is no psychological bend, just a physical and slightly emotional one that takes up the duration of the feature and this is the man’s overcoming a stutter. However, I must admit that the emotional ties to the man’s speech impediment was a very distressing and amazing scene of which the film needed more and probably could have had if not for Seidler’s jokey take on the material.

As aforementioned, the film wears its importance on its sleeve – a man overcoming something to feel more whole. Does he do it? Of course he does. The moment Desplat’s insipidly kind score makes its first appearance you know this film is going the hopeful route even if the history isn’t already known to you. There is an obvious trap that a film such as this can easily fall into, and you wouldn’t know it from its elegant package, but The King’s Speech doesn’t fall gracefully. If a viewer knows how the film will end there is an extremely important task the writer must accomplish and that is to pull away from that pinnacle moment as much as possible and spread the importance throughout the narrative. Unfortunately, this is not one of those films. Definitely pornographic in its structure – the money shot is all that matters.

Leading up to the scene where George conquers his stutter, the audience is subject to a hodgepodge of humor, the occasional maudlin moment and the eccentricities of an elocutionist. For most this will be more than satisfying enough – a very playful, but sometimes somber romp through a tough time in a King’s shoes featuring great performances in a very refined piece of cinema. For others – those who find sporadic laughs amidst the sea of gags and the theatrics too scant and too overbearing to be seen as intelligible – it will, of course, not suffice.

I do not wish to project the thought that this is a terrible film because by no means is it one of the worst films of the year and it does have its value in certain sections. For one, the relationship that develops between King George and teacher Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is very amusing and sometimes even endearing. Watching George evolve from viewing Lionel as an opponent to then accepting him as a mentor of sorts throughout the course of the film is a delight – but this comes with its problems as well. Although Rush is receiving immense acclimation for his performance there is truly nothing here outside of the occasional scene where he is divorced from George’s company that does Rush’s talents justice. His character has no arc – from the first moment we meet him he’s as stubbornly pithy as he is in the last – which equates to watching Rush flop around madly like a fish out of water. It’s amusing in an absurd way, but by no means is this an expression of the talent with which this man is equipped. It is, however, no empty compliment to say that Rush possesses the best moment of acting in the film where he is spending time with his children rehearsing Shakespeare. In fact, the most pure and interesting moments of the film take place when the viewer is given insight into the life of Lionel, leading me to believe that if this were a Lionel Logue biopic it would’ve been a far more successful character study. But I digress… wait, wasn’t I supposed to be complimenting the film?

As a film equipped with more jokes than dramatic punchlines, The King’s Speech is more enjoyable than it is emotionally tactful. Yes, the performances are great (look for Derek Jacobi in a cruel cameo); yes, the narrative is grotesquely cohesive; yes, the use of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Minor at the end did send chills up my spine and assure a small sense of happiness in me — although it did taper off and eventually diminish throughout the credits — but what does this film offer up than two hours of momentary pain and pleasure and a great performance or two that may resonate for as long as, say, the rest of this year’s award season? Nothing. It’s escapism for the elderly, and a film that pulls far too many punches for its own good.

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