Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The King’s Speech / **** (R)

King George VI: Colin Firth
Lionel Logue: Geoffrey Rush
Queen Elizabeth: Helena Bonham Carter
Archbishop Cosmo Lang: Derek Jacobi
King Edward VIII: Guy Pearce
Winston Churchill: Timothy Spall
Myrtle Logue: Jennifer Ehle
King George V: Michael Gambon

The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by Tom Hooper. Written by David Seidler. Running time: 118 min. Rated R (for some language).

It’s difficult to see the full scope of a movie like “The King’s Speech”. Upon first glance, it’s a personal film that tells the story of a man struggling to overcome the demon of his own speech impediment and the friendship he forms with the man responsible for helping to overcome his defect. This is the level on which “The King’s Speech” has catapulted itself into our immediate pop cultural iconography as a treasured entertainment.

The filmmakers approach “The King’s Speech” in the simplest way, on an intimately personal level. The film opens with the Duke of York’s infamous first public speech at Wimbledon. At the behest of his father, King George V, the Duke gives his first speech at the same location of the king’s and his older brother’s first speeches. It’s a disaster, with the Duke’s stutter creating an embarrassment for a large and public audience.

With his brother, Edward (Guy Pearce, “Animal Kingdom”), in line for the throne, the man who will become George VI (Colin Firth, “A Single Man”) is ready to give up on overcoming his speech impediment and is resigned to take his place in the background of the Royal Family. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”), persists, however, and finds an Australian-born speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, “Pirates of the Caribbean”), whose methods are a little stranger and more personal than the knighted doctors’ the Royals are used to.

The screenplay by David Seidler (“Tucker: The Man and His Dream”), who struggled with a similar speech defect, employs a great deal of humor in depicting the relationships between Logue, George VI, and Elizabeth. The humor has a great effect on the film, giving a good deal more entertainment value than might be expected from a story filled with struggle and frustration. It also has a humanizing effect on the Royal Family that might seem out of nature from their public faces.

However, Logue’s disregard for Royal tradition is too much for the Duke to get past. His father, the King, continues to push him to fight through his defect with the poor tact of one who doesn’t understand the problem. With Edward neglecting his duty to the country and gallivanting with a married American socialite while war brews in Europe, the Duke is forced to swallow some Royal pride and return to Logue.  Eventually, King George V’s poor health gets the best of him and Edward must ascend to the throne. But, Edward’s desire to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice divorcee, is at direct odds with the beliefs of the Church of England, so he must abdicate the throne to George VI. George cannot be the voice of his country without Logue.

Even beyond the drama of George’s struggle and the humor highlighted by the screenplay, the history and politics involved in his story make for a fascinating portrait. It’s revealed to George after his father’s death that the King felt George was by far the bravest of his offspring, making him the most fit of the family to lead the country in wartime. Director Tom Hooper (“The Damned United”) makes a great case for this argument without over-dramatizing it. There is one scene that depicts George breaking down under the pressure he never expected to bear on his own shoulders. It is a brief scene that acts much as such a breakdown works in real life; it gets the emotion out of the way and allows the audience and his characters to move on to the task at hand.

It is in regard to its historical context that the film takes on its deeper meanings. Along with George’s personal struggle, it’s also about the strength of a country being based on the strength of its leaders. It can be seen as a study on the impact of the media upon the effectiveness of our leaders. Set at a time when radio first allowed the public immediate access to the decision making process of the government, the film stresses the importance for our government officials to adapt to our growing reliance on the media. The movie emphasizes the complexity of the similar issues we face today by showing us how a medium as basic as radio can amplify such a common problem as a stutter into a national controversy. Without the confidence of the British people, the direction of World War II could’ve been vastly different.

The speech of the film’s title is the one that made King George VI a wartime ruler. He only had forty-minutes to prepare a nine minute speech. The filmmakers don’t present the speech as some sort of speech defect miracle. It plays something like that final game stand by the underdogs, with the audience and characters alike rooting for the home team, but attending the edge of their seats as if defeat could come at any time. As in any good public address, the King’s tentativeness eventually evaporates with an established pace and confidence, but never some miraculous dissipation of his defect.

“The King’s Speech” is a loving film, made with great regard and respect for a very personal problem that, in King George’s case, had to manifest itself in a very public way. It doesn’t pretend that such problems play themselves out on a grand stage, even with such a public figure at its center. Its buried themes tackle the issues of the deterioration of privacy for our public figures in this age of full media celebrity coverage. It also tells of the necessity of personal sacrifice for our public officials. But these issues are never the focus of the film, which allows it freedom as entertainment rather than feeling like a lecture. “The King’s Speech” is the rare historical dramatization that doesn’t feel like it’s depicting history. It should be enjoyed even more than it’s appreciated.

“The King’s Speech” was the winner of four Oscars at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards ceremony last Sunday in L.A. including, Best Picture, Best Actor (Firth), Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.

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