Tag Archives: the king’s speech

Why bother with the Oscars?

The logical conclusion to the “For Your Consideration” posts is a rundown of my picks for who should and who will win Oscars on February 27th. That post, and the rest of the FYC series, is forthcoming. But since The King’s Speech swept the industry’s awards trifecta (Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild, and Producers Guild), there’s been a pre-backlash against its predicted Best Picture win over early favorite The Social Network.

This raised a few questions. Specifically, “is The King’s Speech winning big picture over The Social Network that big of an upset?” and generally, “why do the Oscar’s matter?”

While I’ll save deeper thoughts on The Social Network for another post,* suffice to say it’s a very good film. The combination of David Fincher’s vision, Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, Trent Reznor’s music, and breakout performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and yes, Justin Timberlake, is captivating. And if that wasn’t enough, old white film critics say it defines our generation!

Meanwhile, The King’s Speech is essentially tastefully done Oscar Bait. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Oscar Bait is only a problem when the film only exists for that purpose, ie recent winners Million Dollar Baby and the Dark Mark on the Academy, Crash.

Both The Social Network and The King’s Speech are well-crafted, enjoyable films. This (probably) isn’t “How Green is My Valley” winning over “Citizen Kane.” Nearly 70 years later, the Academy is still risk averse, picking safety over risk 90% of the time. At this point, I would think Oscar watchers would stop feigning surprise when the same is true, year after year.

After all, making Oscar picks is more like horseracing than March Madness, especially these days. “Nominated” or “Winner” on a DVD case means millions in rentals and purchases. So instead of horse owners besting each other, we have producers like Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin lobbying for votes in a Hollywood pissing match. So enjoy the Oscars for what they are: a spectacular, star-studded ad campaign. Use the nominations and winners as a guide for the year’s achievement in film, not as the definitive record.

* I saw it some time back, but have yet to review it on this site. Coming soon!

For Your Consideration: The King's Speech

I am usually hesitant to watch period pieces that dramatize Important Historical Moments. These films typically become exercises in historical reenactment, soapboxing, or a combination of the two, stifling story and human drama. Furthermore, the desire to wink and nod at the audience fights against the desire to engross the viewer.

The King’s Speech manages to sidestep these problems and focus on a very personal story, even when set against a vivid historical backdrop.

The titular king begins the film as a prince, namely Prince Albert, the Duke of York, played by the regal Colin Firth. The second son of the lionly George V (Michael Gambon, better known as Dumbledore in the recent Harry Potter films), Albert is expected to lead an ordinary life, as far as the monarchy goes. He’s second in succession to his older brother, the galavanting playboy Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), and is expected to tend to minor matters while Edward waits to become king.

This includes giving the occasional speech, a task that Albert is terribly unable to do: he is afflicted with a crippling stutter. The film’s inciting incident is a speech that is so embarrassing that Albert decides, with the help of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter in an atypical, subdued role), to finally conquer his stammer.

Throughout the film, shots are set up to accentuate the symbolic weight that royalty and his handicap place on Albert. Microphones loom large in the foreground, as do crowds and audiences, dwarfing the protagonist. The trappings of royalty are shown in disorienting scale. These shots frame Albert as he sees himself: a small, helpless man in the face of history. During an early consultation with a physician who utilizes Classical methods (without any success), the frame is tight and claustrophobic as Albert is tortured with a mouth full of marbles.

Elizabeth looks for alternatives and finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a peculiar man in an unknown, underground world. When Lionel meets Albert (or Bertie, as he will insist on calling him), the results are predictable. The prince alternates between regal pretension and outbursts of pure rage, while Logue keeps him off-balanced, yet on equal footing. Albert refuses to open up in the way that Logue would prefer, making his task an uneviable one. Logue must loosen the most uptight of patients – a stuffy, angry British royal – and cure a problem while only treating the symptoms. The film manages to dramatize the combination of speech and physical therapy that are part of Logue’s unorthodox methods.

While the cause of his stammer is unknown to Albert, it is readily apparent to the audience. His father the king is overbearing, deliberate, and blessed with a rich, ready baritone. His method for getting Albert to speak clearly is to bellow commands (“Relax!”). The king eventually slips into ill health and passes, ending the spectre over the prince. Only then does he open up to Logue about the extent of his psychic damage. He unloads a litany that is staggering: parented through fear, forced to change from left to right-handedness (as was typical far into the 20th century), fitted with metal splints to correct his legs, and abused by nannies. Still, a diagnosis is not the same as a cure.

As Albert works with Logue, the stakes are raised by circumstances beyond his control. Between his father’s death and Edwards petulant desire to marry an American divorcee, the government and monarchy face a crisis of legitimacy. Logue counsels him, but oversteps the tenuous balance of respect and friendship they have built when he verbalizes what Albert knows: Albert would make a better king, if not for his fatal flaw. Logue is cast aside, just as Edward abdicates, but with the coronation speech in sight, he’s brought back into the fold.

For the final act, the film fast-forwards to 1939, with Britain on the verge of war with Germany. The coronation speech proves to be a walk in the park compared to the three pages the king must read on-air, at this crucial moment. The contrast with the film’s opening speech, the disaster at Wembley, is great: the king falters at points, but perseveres. With Logue behind him, he steps out to greet his subjects, and finally comes into his own as monarch.

The King’s Speech owes much to the performances of Firth and Rush, who are strong candidates for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars, respectively. It is an inspiring film that draws its strength from its characters rather than the monumental times it captures, which like public speaking, is not such an easy feat.