Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The King's Speech

If I am King, where is my power? Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can't speak.     
This powerful quote from The King's Speech sums up the heart of Tom Hooper's beautifully effective period drama. When the Academy nominations were announced, The King's Speech had nominations in all the most prestigious categories including Best Picture as well as acting, directing, and technical categories. But beyond a movie that seems tailored to be traditional Academy bait lies a deeply personal and sympathetic story about an ordinary man with relatively ordinary fears forced into an extraordinary situation.

     The story of The King's Speech centers around the Duke of York, or Albert (later given the title King George VI). Albert is the son of a king, and soon to be the brother of a king. Having grown up in the shadow of his father and his brother destined to be king, Albert is not groomed for the public eye. He keeps to himself and quietly attends dinners and functions as a prop to the Royal Family. He bows politely and keeps his wife on his arm and shies away from too much publicity, which works best for him because his speech impediment has been deemed an unforgivable flaw by the British subjects, as well as his own family. Albert's champion is his wife Elizabeth, who stands by him and listens attentively to his painful and forced speechmaking even as the entire nation yawns and whispers amongst themselves. What begins as a standard quest to overcome the obstacle of a crippling stammer becomes a crucial journey of personal discovery as the British Empire turns to an unready Albert for leadership with World War II looming precariously ahead.

     Initially, a movie about a monarch's inability to converse without an embarrassing stammer seems much too straightforward and unvarying to carry an entire movie, but this is where the actors shine with a masterfully crafted screenplay. Colin Firth is currently a favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of King George VI-- an accolade that would be well-deserved. Firth not only grasps the stammering speech patterns with stunning accuracy, but he communicates in his eyes and facial movements how painful each forced experience is. The lack of self-confidence is written in his shifty eyes and twitching facial muscles as he labors on each word and fearfully casts glances at his ever-supportive wife for affirmation. When he is shown speaking publicly, he is legitimately terrified and visibly trembling, almost frozen in mortification. In private, he trips and fumbles his way through the verbal jungles of common conversational exchanges, barely able to convey a bedtime story to his unconditionally loving daughters.

     Apparently Albert has tried all manner of help from various speech therapists and doctors to no avail, therefore he protests seeing the unconventional Lionel Logue for further help. He hides behind his title as the Duke of York and desperately tries to exert the strength and determination of character that he longs to possess. Albert knows himself to be morally superior to his brother David, but he is unable to stand up for himself when David mocks him. Albert tries to steer his sessions with Logue in the manner of a ruler, but his own insecurities and to a degree immaturities, are a transparent shield that Logue sees through instantly. Initially Albert is offended by Logue's informal manners and seeming lack of respect for royalty, refusing to discuss such trivial matters as early memories or personal matters. It is in these scenes that Colin Firth displays with heartfelt precision the gradual breaking down of Albert's empty defenses, and even more gradual building of Albert's own confidence. For each step that he makes forward, Firth exhibits perfectly the frustration and fury at falling back again and again, unable to use his practice when he needs it the most. Yet in his moments of victory, he may act with restraint appropriate to a king, but his expressions and breathing speak conquest in a great battle. Colin Firth's performance is undoubtedly the finest of his already diverse career.

     The tagline for The King's Speech is "It takes leadership to confront a nation's fear. It takes friendship to conquer your own." The friendship referred to, is the relationship between Albert and Lionel Logue, his speech therapist. While Albert must lead a nation as they face the threat of war, Logue is tasked with helping Albert overcome his disabling fears. Through hours of unusual speech exercises, Albert and Logue develop an unlikely friendship that ultimately turns a stammering Duke into a King. In one particularly rich scene, Albert pays Logue an unscheduled visit. While Albert works on a model plane, a simple joy of childhood that he was denied, he slowly reveals a truth about his past involving an abusive nanny. First he feigns laughter and indifference to the memory. As Logue gently prods, Albert's wound becomes harder for him to hide, and it is clear that these moments with Logue are a rare instance of safety to Albert. And in Albert, Logue finds the validation and accomplishment that affirms his work. 

     The friendship between Albert and Logue is incontestably the center point of The King's Speech. This carefully constructed and powerfully executed theme of the story is sold by its sterling performances. While too much good cannot be said of Colin Firth's incredible performance, the movie is equally carried by the extraordinary skills of Geoffrey Rush-- a man whose talent, like Firth come to think of it, has been consistently and unjustly overlooked time and time again. Here, Rush impressively flexes his dramatic, emotional, and even comic skills. Rush is artless in his craft, effortlessly gliding from a tender scene with his sons to moments of laughter, such as provoking Albert into a profane rant. 
     As a character, Logue's sarcastic and sometimes irreverent manner is a stark contrast to Albert's aristocratic and traditional airs. He brings a rare combination of comedy and tension to what otherwise would be a bland docudrama, sometimes delivering a laugh, and other times ruthlessly assaulting Albert's defenses and challenging his authority with actions bordering on treachery. In a later scene of the movie while Albert paces and rants about what he sees as a deception by Logue, he turns to see Logue slouched unceremoniously upon the coronation throne. Albert is infuriated, but Logue sits unflinchingly, asking why he should listen to him at all until Albert declares passionately and lividly "Because I have a voice!" Logue replies calmly and simply "Yes, you do." It is a moment of soaring emotion and gorgeous intensity, performed immaculately and flawlessly. 

     Helena Bonham-Carter is so well known for quirky roles that her turn as Duchess of York Elizabeth almost seems too ordinary given her pattern of movie choices. A prim and proper duchess would almost promise to be underwhelming, and yet Bonham-Carter portrays Elizabeth with a quiet wifely strength characteristic of a queen without losing her human touch. While Elizabeth is not given to as many emotional peaks as Albert, her frustration, sympathy, or irritation is certainly not hidden, yet she portrays all these feelings with royal restraint. As a duchess, Elizabeth fits her position comfortably and seems more at ease with the royal life than her born-into-priviledge husband. As a wife and mother, Elizabeth shows unfaltering support for her husband and tender sweetness towards her daughters. Elizabeth plays a crucial role in her husband's growth as a leader and a man, displaying a steadfastness of character that is largely unseen, but the benefits of which are hugely important. 

     England through the eyes of The King's Speech is dreary, foggy, and wet. Even Buckingham Palace seems like little more than a relic in need of repainting. The beams of light shining through the palace windows illuminate the dust that floats through the air of the regal residence. Logue's office is made up of stained and mismatched furniture set on uneven floorboards and pushed against peeling wallpaper. The King's Speech is not a period drama that makes the early decades of the 1900's look fine and sparkly, but rather, shows in its mere imagery a shift in the times. While the royal family grapples with the publicity nightmare of David's open affair, they struggle to save face. But like Buckingham Palace itself, the monarchy is an old relic that lacks the luster and grandeur of former years.

     The King's Speech tackles what might have been an impossibly boring plot scenario, and makes it a piece of true art. By mixing creative camera angles with sparing use of music, cut with various newsreel blips to set the tone for the world in which the characters function, along with award-worthy performances across the board, The King's Speech is a complete and thoroughly exquisite drama. Through the poetic blending of tender private moments with the intense scenes of public scrutiny, The King's Speech manages to be neither biography nor fiction, but walks the fine line between them, creating a compassionate story about fighting-- and defeating-- one's great inner battles, and the friendships that will win that victory.