Monday, February 07, 2011

Tongue Tied

I was chatting with a friend of mine yesterday before heading out to the movies. Our conversation partly went like this:

Me: I'm going to see The King's Speech today.

Friend: That looks good.

Me: It looks like Oscar bait to me.

Friend: Granted.

Let's get this out of the way: The King's Speech (2010, directed by Tom Hooper) is totally Oscar bait. It's the kind of movie the members of the Academy LOVE. High-minded, pedigreed, slightly irreverent, historical, "significant." It's all of these things. It's also middlebrow, cinematically conservative, and uncontroversial. Hell, it features a lead character dealing with a disability. If that's not Oscar bait, nothing is. If I had to guess, it'll take six of the twelve Oscars for which it's nominated, including Best Picture. But I don't really care. Oscar has never been a benchmark of excellence. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick.

In spite of all of this, The King's Speech is a pretty good movie. As I say, it's totally middlebrow, but that doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, it's fun to watch. John Ford once said that the most interesting thing in the world was the human face, and that's something that this movie understands implicitly. It helps that it has a sterling cast of British (and Australian) worthies and it spends its running time looking them in the eye. It's effective.

The story here finds Albert, the Duke of York, dealing with a debilitating stammer. Given that he's second in line to the English throne, and given that his brother, Edward VIII is pissing away his monarchy in an affair with an American divorcee, it's fair to assume that he's going to have to do some public speaking, and lots of it. His wife brings him a succession of speech therapists, none of whom have much success, though part of this stems from Bertie's own rage at his impediment. He's an angry man. Eventually, though, the royal couple find a speech therapist with unconventional methods who is completely unimpressed by their royal pedigree. This is Lionel Logue, who unexpectedly succeeds where the others have failed. Bertie eventually ascends the throne when his brother abdicates, a terrifying state of affairs given the rise of Nazi Germany and the near certainty of war. On the occasion of the outbreak of WWII, Bertie, now King George VI, is called upon to deliver the most important speech of his life.

For all the pith and moment of this film's setting, it's surprisingly intimate. The King's Speech is mostly a chamber drama. The most important action in the film takes place in Logue's dingy studio, which is almost a parody of the lush interiors one usually sees in movies about British royalty. It's funny the things you notice about films when you see a lot of them. One of the things that I latched onto while watching this was the preponderance of short lenses used to film it. These slightly distort the frame, bringing the contours of the actors faces forward in space when filmed in close-up, and are occasionally used to indicate Bertie's discomfort with the world in which he lives. It's an interesting choice, given that if one does this badly, it can lend a film an element of grotesquerie. In this case, the film is already visually dreary, designed as it is in grays and browns. I presume that this is deliberately contrived to place the emphasis on the actors rather than on the production. The actors are uniformly fine, so this wasn't strictly necessary. Still, it works, and it never actually makes any of its characters grotesque.

Colin Firth gets the plum Oscar bait role here as Bertie, and it's hard to fault his performance. The edge of rage just under his scenes is well considered, and on the whole, he'll deserve the awards he receives. But it's his co-stars that really jumped off the screen for me. Helena Bonham Carter plays Bertie's wife, Elizabeth, with a sly twinkle in her eye. Elizabeth enjoys tweaking the office she holds and the expectations that go with it. Carter gets this just right. Geoffrey Rush plays Logue, who is an eternal optimist. It's fun seeing him exercise his own delusions as an actor, while also showing him excel at his true calling. Rush can be a barnstormer if he wants, but he keeps this impulse under wraps here. The scenes between Firth and Rush are the core of the movie, and it shows just how engrossing watching two people just talking to each other can be.

This film gets points, too, for creative use of the seven dirty words you can't say on television--just in case the audience might think it was too uptight to watch. The awards will certainly obscure the charm of all this, which is too bad, really. This doesn't deserve the Best Picture Oscar, really, in the same way that cancer patients don't deserve their cancers. Alas.


DeAnna said...

"it shows just how engrossing watching two people just talking to each other can be."

That was my reaction to The Social Network. I still haven't seen The King's Speech, mostly because after 8 years of W, I'm having difficulty finding sympathy for men with power and their unique problems. I probably will see it before Oscars, but I expect I'll be seeing it alone.

I'm still completely blown away by The Social Network for how smart and fast the dialog was written. And how engrossing it was for a movie that is 100% dialog driven. The downside for me was that I found it ugly, but I suspect it was very underlit as clips I've watched on-line don't look nearly as muddy. Oh and I have a weak spot for unlikable protagonists.

But I need to get out and see The King's Speech, The Illusionist and probably The Social Network again, before oscar night.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I want to see The Illusionist so bad I can taste it.

I'm sympatico about movies about the problems of white men with power, but I don't let it stop me from going to the movies.

I haven't seen The Social Network. I may not see it. David Fincher is still on my shit list.

Fletch said...

Your first couple paragraphs really encapsulate my feelings toward this as well. Just saw it last night, and yes, it's a very well-made film with prestige yada yada yada. It also will be largely forgotten and in 10-15 years, people will wonder "Why did THAT win Best Picture when it clearly should have gone to (fill in the blank)?"

It's enjoyable with expert acting, and is well-written; the biggest hurdle for me to declare it amongst the best is that it failed to really get me emotionally engaged. I tried, I wanted to, but I couldn't. And this didn't even have to do with the "oh look, poor king with a disability" aspect; I just never felt engrossed. Perhaps the inevitability of it all hampered it some.

It did, however, remind me once again why I love Geoffrey Rush so much.

Fletch said...

Oh, and YBLM! (but you already knew that)

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Fletch. Welcome.

Yeah. All I could think as I drove home from the theater was that we were doomed to look forward to twenty years of people bitching about how Inception got robbed. It's Annie Hall all over again, methinks (by the way, LOVE Annie Hall, so that's not a derogatory). Forget it, Jake. It's the Academy.

Jess said...

Wow - I love your writing. It's biting without being mean, circumspect and deliberate while stating your opinion. I think you nailed The King's Speech description. It's a great movie, but perhaps not what we should be rewarding. -YBLM

Fletch said...

"we were doomed to look forward to twenty years of people bitching about how Inception got robbed"

That's the rub for me, and the reason I put "fill in the blank" in my previous comment. I placed Inception at the top of my list for 2010, but I'm not even sure that's the movie we'll think Speech robbed from. I know there are ardent supporters of a number of films, from Winter's Bone to Scott Pilgrim to Social Network and on and on, but I don't know if I've had or will have that one movie from this year that I think will stand above all of the others...though I am fairly certain that whatever it is, it won't be this one.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Jess. Thanks! And welcome!

@Fletch. I suspect that you're right. I picked Inception out of a hat because I'm already seeing invective about how Chris Nolan got snubbed. (Mind you, I don't have an opinion on Inception, myself. I haven't seen it yet). But the X film could well be any number of others.

simoncolumb said...

im just reading a few of the comments and, to be honest, I really liked THE KINGS SPEECH. Soemthing really inspirational about it.

Maybe Oscar bait, but then again - and this would make a good post - what IS Oscar bait? I'm sure, with THE KINGS SPEECH, you could find a bunch of things that make it less oscar-bait-ish. For one, its a very personal story (one guy learning to speak) that is placed on an epic stage (royalty). More importantly, Hooper manages to make us not feel disconnected - we are all rooting for King George VI!

I think INCEPTION is incredible - I think SHUTTER ISLAND is better, but where the hell is that??? not even nominated!! - but, lets be honest, Oscar will pick the most mainstream one and, I think there is a certain pretentiousness - albeit, not pretenetious for me - in the whole psycho analysis-of-dreams that just is a stumbling block.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD is better than NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but I knew NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN would win because its just that little bit more mainstream.


Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Simon.

I hope you haven't come to the conclusion that I don't like The King's Speech. As I said in my post, it's a good movie, and all the Oscar frou frou is going to do is obscure that fact. I liked it a lot.

I don't agree with you about There Will Be Blood, but it doesn't matter, I guess, because at a certain point, the difference between the relative excellence of one movie and the relative excellence of another comes down to a matter of taste. Is How Green Was My Valley better than Citizen Kane? No. But it's not worse, either. It all depends on what you want from movies.

I like Shutter Island a lot, by the way, but I haven't figured out how to write about it yet. I probably need to watch it again. It's been a while.

Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful exchange of movie thoughts. Just surfing for the moment, caught your blog on a Lamb post and followed it over. Entirely too much going on in this thread to 'jump into the middle' but I wanted to say hello and given that I have not seen The King's Speech yet, I'm not going to stumble through a line-by-line until I've seen it. Sounds like you're right on though, just from the trailers and what I've heard around -- and there is a line in the thread somewhere, about taste and preference and that really does sum up the movie going experience. I'd like to think there are certain films that appeal to just about everyone for similar reasons and while it happens, I think it is rarely for the same reason. I mean I could go on and on about Inception but I've already done that on my blog (inquiring minds interested in a different take than most, please drop by). I also think people attach themselves to directors and actors, sometimes cinematographers, rarely editors or production designers unless that's your bag, and it is like blinders on a horse - that particular person can do no wrong. I'm immediately reminded of the Coen brothers. I think in a Pepsi challenge they'd score pretty well but they also made some awful films too. The Ladykillers anyone?

cheers, looking forward to seeing you around->

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rory. Welcome!

I know what you mean about hero worship. Auteurism is very useful, but it has a downside. I don't think it's possible to have a long career in movies without making a bad movie. I mean, I think Hitchcock's late forties slump has a couple of them (Under Capricorn). So does John Ford's late period. Some late Billy Wilder movies are almost unwatchable. It's a rare filmmaker who hits all the time. I sometimes thing that Charles Laughton is the ideal auteur. One masterpiece and done.

Oh, and for what it's worth, I tend to glom onto editors and cinematographers. And screenwriters. Especially screenwriters. I'm sure the Writer's Guild would approve.

Thanks for commenting!