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Monday, January 17, 2011

 

Mumview: The King's Speech

Quick summary

George VI never expected to inherit the throne: that was the right of his older brother David - but when David insists on marrying an American divorcee, 'Bertie' finds himself expected to speak to and for his people through the modern marvel of radio. Except that with a lifelong stammer, he can't speak - until he begins work with pioneering therapist Lionel Logue.

Does it work the way it should?

Biopics are a favourite genre of mine. In this era of competitive marketing and presold audiences, basing a film around an historical figure is a way of getting some brand recognition without having to remake perfectly good films or create sequels to perfectly bad ones - an opportunity to be recognisable without being unoriginal. The standard of biopics in recent years has been correspondingly high: Pierrepoint comes to mind (aka The Last Hangman), along with The Passion of Ayn Rand (if one is prepared to stretch the definition of 'recent' back to 1999) The Last King of Scotland, The Damned United, The Queen, Frost/Nixon and pretty much anything by Peter Morgan, as well as, of course, The Arbor, which I reviewed with such pleasure last November. If you're looking for intelligent popular filmmaking, I'm inclined to say that biopics are where it's at nowadays.

So The King's Speech is in some pretty good company. However, to be that good, a biopic needs to have a solid dramatic structure, and following an interesting life doesn't necessarily give you one. If you merely dramatise a biography without identifying some kind of thematic throughline, you can wind up with, for example, Wilde: a handsome series of events with some good performances and striking moments, but which taken in total feels more like a list than a shaped narrative. The commonest way of creating such a throughline is to present a character who is in some kind of denial: we watch them in their secure phase, the fallout as their denial creates consequences, and finally the moment of compelled self-knowledge.

On the face of it, The King's Speech doesn't seem to have this: our hero knows he stutters and that this is a problem. The stammer is undoubtedly made worse by the stress of dealing with his family, and he's not really unaware of that, either. Yet the throughline works. If it sounds sentimental to say that the knowledge he finds is that he's capable of speech, you'd think this was one of those tiresome sunny-side-up you-just-have-to-believe-in-yourself pieces of sentiment, but The King's Speech is not a sentimental film. Believing in yourself is not, in fact, the key to winning races or the hearts of fair maidens - it doesn't hurt, but it's seldom the magic bullet - but it's far less trite to assume that increased confidence would help with a nervous stammer. Too, there may be a speech that we build up to, but it's not a single moment of triumph. King George struggles through his final delivery and isn't exactly perfect, and it's clear that this isn't a complete happy ever after: his stammer will be a lifelong issue, and what he's learned isn't a perfect cure but a good coping method.

To keep on the right side of sentimentality takes good performances, in which The King's Speech is rich. Helena Bonham Carter does a delicate job playing the woman best remembered now as the elderly Queen Mother in her youth, and Geoffrey Rush as Logue has a captivating mixture of candid confident and obscure pathos. But it's really Firth who has to carry the film, and he does it splendidly. Just an example: Logue insists on first names within his consulting room, and resolutely addresses his patient as 'Bertie' despite objections. In Bertie/George's fragile moods, Firth manages to convey in his carriage and expression a man who can't be called Bertie, a man who seems to have no first name at all.

There's something a little curious in the film's view on relationships. On the one hand, Bertie/George is a figure of tragedy trapped in a loveless royal family (a new modern archetype, that), yet at the same time, David/Edward is played with unsympathetic skill by Guy Pearce as a self-centred man in undignified thrall to the appalling Wallis Simpson. Is love important in a royal family, or is it wrong to place love ahead of royal duty? It seems to depend on which brother you look at. Having said that, though, The King's Speech is a film very much on Bertie/George's side, and rather than going for the brought-low-by-a-woman stereotype, manages to portray David/Edward's relationship with Wallis as simply one more piece of casual obliviousness from an entitled brother. The story is all about being the sensitive one in an insensitive family - and as such, manages to cast David/Edward's love for Wallis as a love neglectful of other ties. It's a tricky business, but it seems to manage it.

It also manages to convey something extremely delicate: a reconciliation of the British imagination with the idea of duty. In our mourning-Diana phase, the nation staged a deep revolt against the idea of duty, casting it as the antithesis of love, warmth and human connection. A cinematic salvo was fired against that idea with The Queen, a splendid script that repositioned Queen Elizabeth in the role previously held by Diana: the fragile woman in pain, unappreciated by all around her. Watching The King's Speech, it's hard not to hear Blair's voice in The Queen, calling royalty the job Elizabeth 'watched kill her father' - especially as we see Bertie/George light cigarette after cigarette, following the foolish advice of his doctors. The Queen played duty as a sometimes-misguided attempt to honour the values Elizabeth had always been taught to uphold; a loyalty to the people and world you hold dear. The King's Speech manages to humanise it still further. Duty is what David abandons and Bertie takes up, and as such is something familiar to us commoners: duty is being the responsible one in the family because nobody else will. As such, duty becomes love of a sort, or at least closely intertwined: a form of relationship with those we love because we have to.

We in Britain have something of a love-hate relationship with royalty, and our films follow it. Possibly as our Queen ages we're starting to feel a nostalgic anxiety for what in the Diana days we demanded to leave behind. (Well, some of us; I was always a cynic about the Diana myth. Charity work? Wonderful. Panorama interview? Looked immensely strategic to me, and I was only eighteen.) These new myths are probably no more accurate than the old ones, but as a tale of duty and drama, it's a wonderful film. Put it this way: it got me looking up George VI, and it made me cry.


Ready for this?


After all the furore about swearing, I went in knowing only one thing: the King says the F-word! I was expecting a tale of therapy all about the cussin', but in fact that aspect has been overplayed: the effing and blinding only happens in two scenes as part of a much broader therapy in which Logue focuses on the suppressions and humiliations of Bertie/George's life. The result was an altogether more delicate and mild piece than you might think from the publicity.

Now it's getting a lot of attention, I would expect that 'uplifting feelgood' is probably the expectation people have. It is that, but it's a painful film as well, melancholic in tone, full of misty avenues, peeling wallpaper and blank, tense faces. There are laughs, and there are swears, but those are not the film.


Life amongst the groundlings

Being that this is a movie featuring an uplifting tale of personal development, historical drama and Colin Firth, it is perhaps not surprising that despite the rain, there were plenty of mums in attendance. Baby noise was less a matter of squealing interruptions and more a matter of constant background heckling - perhaps not inappropriately, considering the subject of the film.

While the film moved at a slow pace, it was also gripping, with quietly arresting visuals. I know this because every time I walked my baby up and down the aisle, I turned around as quickly as I could so as not to miss anything. I wouldn't have missed any plot, but I got less of the cinematic sweep, and I wanted to see it. It's one of those films where you only realise how absorbed you are when something interrupts you.

Any new mum will tell you that it's easier to wring tears from a mother when a maid. As Bertie/George haltingly describes his bleak childhood, I found myself clutching my son, tears pouring down my face. As I said, pretty much anything to do with unhappy children will get tears out of a new mother, but Firth's stiff unhappiness is genuinely moving, one of his best performances to date - which, as he's a fine actor, is saying quite a bit.


So, any good?

I was initially tempted to go for the easy joke and say 'Fuck, yes,' but it's a testament to the film's quiet power that actually I don't feel like making a wisecrack about it. Whether it quite ranks with Peter Morgan's best work I don't know - it's a different beast, more optimistic, more partisan and a bit soppier - but it's still a lovely movie, likely to have a wide appeal, beautifully filmed, and very much worth a look.

Comments:
Before I comment on the principal content of your post (mmyspouse has oral surgery today so this is a flyby posting) -- I found your description of the "nursing mothers" show to be fascinating. There are so few spaces these days where it is acceptable to have a baby -- where one does not get dirty looks if one's child dares to act like a normal healthy child. This plays a large role in the current marginalization of mothers.

How is Nat for events of movie length?
 
A good boy, of course!

Or in more detail: all the babies there are pretty much the same: they have periods of quiet lap-sitting, periods of grizzling, and periods of falling asleep. Two hours is a long time for a baby and a cinema isn't the most comfortable place for them, so everyone's baby has something to say about it at some point, but it's never a big deal because we're able to walk them around, nurse them, go out to change nappies and return, and generally speaking deal with them at the age they are. On the whole, we all do pretty well.
 
"The King's Speech" is a wonderful film, thanks to phenomenal acting. However, it does distort the actual history between the Royal Family and the Nazis a bit: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/the-kings-speech/
 
I can't wait for this to come out on DVD!
 
Having not yet seen the movie I cannot speak to its treatment of the Royals and their relationship to English society...but...the idea that those who are born into places of privilege "pay a price" for that advantage is deeply rooting in our culture.

Yes, David/Edward was a celebrity as the Prince of Wales but he was also playing a useful role in the upholding of the kyriarchy. He was the "circuses" in the "bread and circuses" that was maintaining the status quo of a society that had been deeply riven by economic and class inequality even before the advent of the Great Depression. It is this type of 'royalty-gazing as sublimation of deprivation' that the Kinks are speaking to in their song She Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina.

The British aristocracy in general (and parts of the British Royal family in particular) had such deep ties with fascism and the Nazis that one wonders if the existing class/social system would have survived the Second World War without some form of rehabilitation -- and certainly Bertie/George's relationship with his wife and the fact that he clearly viewed/experienced becoming King as a duty to be borne rather than an as welcomed exercise in personal power helped to situate the Royal Family as servants of their subjects instead of frivolous and trifling parasites on the public purse.
 
Though contrariwise...

http://www.johannhari.com/2009/09/25/can-we-finally-see-the-truth-about-the-vile-queen-mother-
 
I may just go see it after this review! Biopics are NOT a favourite genre of mine, but hey, if Colin Firth is good in it, that's gotta be worth something.

We have mums & bubs movies here in Australia too! Love them! Although mine is getting a bit big for it - she doesn't like to sit now that she can crawl.

Also - big win! I found "Bareback" in my local bookshop, just when I thought I was going to have to order it from overseas! Yay! It is now sitting right on the top of my "to read" pile!
 
Oddly, I saw the movie (on the same day, if I get the time zones right) in almost exactly the opposite sort of crowd. Theater full of seniors with lots of space for wheelchairs, and it started a bit late to let those with walkers get to their seats.

Many of those present looked to be about the age of the present queen, and at least some remarked that they remembered hearing King George VI speak on the wireless when they were children, including my mother.

Made me wish, in retrospect, that I had the skills of a journalist, in the sense of being able to talk to people I don't know and find out what they think. It would have been interesting getting the reactions of members of that crowd to the movie.

Does anyone know whether the depiction of Elizabeth as able to make herself at home in and/or comfortably navigating Logue's social context is at all realistic?
 
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