E: This past week, C and I had the great good fortune of seeing this movie with our friends J, Z and Q.
C: A winning combination in life, as in Scrabble.
E: Far better than the much anticipated delicious dinner we did not get to eat at The Cheesecake Factory (it turns out that 2 hours isn’t long enough to get food there on a Thursday night) were the delicious performances of The King’s Speech cast, delightful cameos from old friends, and warm and inspiring plot – one that has the advantage of being true. There’s just something about a true story, don’t you think?
C: There really is. Even when you know it’s been fictionalized, as every “true story” must be.
E: Since life is far to messy to fit within a convenient narrative structure, of course. The scene: England in the mid thirties. Stuttering Bertie is England’s Duke of York. His older brother David will be king, and thank God; Bertie’s happy at home with his wife and adoring daughters Elizabeth and Margaret.
C: In case you are confused about who “David” is, that would be Edward VIII. Kings are evidently like Hollywood stars when it comes to nomenclature — only with the opposite result, in that they change their names to become harder to remember.
E: And the main criterion for picking those names seems to be that they’ve been used before. That’s certainly not a plan that would work in Hollywood. Now, Bertie cares passionately about his country and world events, especially the rise of Hitler, but he’s been cowed all his life by his father (Michael Gambon) and his brothers’ brutal teasing. His voice is crippled, literally and emotionally.
C: We get a glimpse of David’s cruelty, but interestingly, the movie describes Bertie’s father as harsh and frightening but shows him more as a man who wants to help his son overcome his infirmity, but is going about it in a totally unproductive way. Michael Gambon is brilliant as always here; he looks so different as George V that I’m not sure I would have recognized him by sight. (I’d know the Dumblevoice anywhere, though.)
E: That’s true. We see George so confounded by his son’s inability to just read a damn radio address that he’s reduced to insisting Bertie just do it and get it over with (as if that wouldn’t be his personal preference?). Not helpful, and surely intimidating, but not fearful or evil. Now, my picture of the Queen Mum has been largely formed by The Queen, but I thought it was eerie to see Helena Bonham Carter play stuffy and normal, and, yes, incredibly Queen Mum-like. There wasn’t a hint of Bellatrix or the Red Queen about her. Really, how long has it been since she’s been in a film without trying to kill anyone? The worst thing she did was cut Wallis Simpson cold.
C: And as snobby as that was, the film actually had me on her side. Not quite sure how they achieved it, but I was led to feel quite put out about the American waltzing in and trampling on all the good old British traditions.
E: Well, the first thing we know Simpson does is cut down all those hundred-year-old trees in the avenue to Ballmoral. I felt nearly as put out as the Countess. Also, we also know she’s still married to someone else while she’s cutting down Scotland’s loveliest trees in the name of the Crown Prince. So that’s not good either. Less sympathetic, perhaps, was Bonham Carter’s somewhat snobby behavior to speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). (I read that the film is actually based upon his diaries – very interesting, that.) But she gets over it. She’s more interested in results for her husband than she is in standing on ceremony.
C: She always treats Logue with respect, though, even if she does insist on keeping up the proper forms.
E: And Lionel is not at all about the proper forms, so that’s certainly something to be got over. But get over it they do, and once Bertie starts working with Lionel, things take off. David, who becomes King Edward for a few short months, is so dependent on his faithless lover Wallis Simpson that he can’t stand up for his country as he ought. This added some interesting color to my previous understanding of the period; I’ve heard over and over what a marvelous couple David and Wallis were, and I thought their story was the height of romance. But this script sees it as cowardice, and it also implies that the country dodged a bullet.
C: Wasn’t that fascinating? The man who turned down the kingship to be with the woman he loved – what could be a more romantic story?
C: Here, it’s almost seedy.
E: No almost about it.
C: David, played by an also-hard-to-recognize Guy Pearce, comes off as needy (when it comes to Wallis) and creepy (in his treatment of his brother) and maybe even a bit fascist (claiming Hitler will “sort things out” in Europe). Next to this picture, the diffident, stalwart family man Bertie seems a much better choice for king.
E: Well, yes, and I hadn’t heard that Wallis was still married when she and David took up together, or that she wasn’t faithful to David. Or that she seemed to have some sort of relationship with the Nazis. That took a bit of the bloom off that rose.
C: The movie does a lot with appearance vs. reality – David is exactly the kind of man who can win over the people, with dash, looks, and charm, while Bertie can’t do presentation. The scene where Bertie watches a newsreel of Hitler speaking to a devoted crowd drives the point home – it’s qualities like wisdom, patience, and care for the people that make a truly good leader, not public appeal. Though the movie illustrates that you need some of the latter, too.
E: Yes, and Hitler excels at the public appeal as well as some other aspects of leadership, so it makes sense that Bertie’s a little envious of him. He’s too intimidated by flashiness and power’s outward signs to recognize his own quieter worth.
C: The other message of the film, which they use David and Bertie to illustrate, is the idea that the real hero is the one who sticks it out. In this context, David’s abdication feels like desertion. Bertie’s best quality is that he doesn’t give up.
E: Neither does Lionel, which is pretty nice. He’s utterly unbowed by everything the establishment tries to throw at him to keep Bertie under their control.
C: True. He’s a very appealing character, falling into the familiar “inspirational coach” role — but not too neatly. The movie both does and doesn’t do what you’d predict, going in. For instance, contrary to my expectations, Bertie’s speech (in regular conversation) doesn’t noticeably improve over time. But he just goes on trying.
E: Well, what’s fascinating is that his everyday conversation really isn’t that bad. He’s okay talking to his wife Liz, or telling his girls a story, or when he’s having a casual discussion with David. His impediment rears its head when he’s threatened in some way, or faced with an intimidating situation.
C: That’s when it’s really debilitating, anyway. What a magnificent job Firth does here, capturing not only the impediment but an accent and speech pattern entirely unlike his own. Even his physicality was completely different, and thoroughly inhabited.
E: I loved seeing some of our favorite actors, most notably Derek Jacobi as the oily Archbishop of Canterbury, and Firth’s castmates from the stellar 1995 miniseries Pride and Prejudice.
C: Yes, the moment Firth meets Jennifer Ehle (here playing Logue’s wife) gave me some inner glee. And the brief cameo by David Bamber (P&P‘s greasy Mr. Collins) seemed like a personal gift to fans of the miniseries.
E: Those of you who follow this space, or know me out in the real world, know that I was a devoted fan of Firth’s work in A Single Man, and that I think he was robbed of last year’s best actor Oscar. No such miscarriage of justice seems likely this year. I don’t want to be overconfident about it, but this role is tailored made for Oscar (the Academy loves triumph over physical adversity – it’s Acting!) and he richly deserves all the accolades he’s been getting.
C: Indeed. Having seen A Single Man for the first time two weeks before seeing this, I’m entirely confident in calling this the more impressive performance.
E: Well, it’s hard to escape how hard Firth was working here; his work in A Single Man was more subtle, more internal. The physical struggle Bertie undergoes to get words out, the first time he meets with Lionel – well, it’s pretty awe inspiring. But the speech is just the half of it. He’s a different man with different people; inventing bedtime stories for his daughters, falling under the weight of his father’s expectations and his brother’s deliberate cruelty, and finally facing down his own person demons. Now, the award could possible go to James Franco for his work in 127 Hours, or even Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, but it sticks in the Academy’s craw to even nominate men that young, let alone let them win. Justice seems likely to win out this time, even if prejudice helps it along.
C: A funny thing to be grateful to, but in this case I’d take it.
E: Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter are likely to pick up nominations of their own in the supporting category; popular wisdom will tell you that they’ll both lose to members of the supporting cast of The Fighter, though no one can quite agree whether it’ll be Amy Adams or Melissa Leo who takes home the women’s prize. Still, both deserve the nomination; each brings shades to their performance that I haven’t seen before, and I’ve seen a lot of these two actors.
C: Bonham-Carter’s role may be the more impressive because it’s such an unusual performance for her; I don’t know if that should be taken into account, or not.
E: I expect that’s helping her out. The movie is expect to pick up nominations for Best Picture, screenplay and director (and, no doubt, costumes etc.). But can it win the big prize? The media is positioning The King’s Speech as the establishment candidate against the upstart Facebook movie. Many of the pundits claim that The Social Network (anointed by critics as the year’s best film) is too dark and unlikable to win, that it’s Pulp Fiction to Speech’s Forrest Gump.
C: I complain about the Academy’s stodginess all the time, but you won’t see me siding with the Let’s Celebrate Rich Misogynist Jerks movie over this pleasing and well-crafted little gem.
E: Damn straight. You can add overrated to that list of negatives, too. Nonetheless, it could be a PR nightmare for The King’s Speech. Just ask Saving Private Ryan what can happen to the establishment candidate. And honestly, I think the argument that the Academy can’t handle darkness is nuts. What about American Beauty? The Hurt Locker? What about the entire decade of the 70s, for heaven’s sake?
Anyway, I feel caught between the absurdity of this idea that The Social Network can’t possibly win, and the desire for it to lose. So where does that leave The King’s Speech? Firmly in the hunt, if no where else, with fans who are neither old nor stodgy behind it. Three cheers for the King!