Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The King's Speech (2010)

After years of planning and months of anticipation, the definitive cinematic treatment of one of the 20th century's great unsung heroes King George VI has arrived in movie theatres, at least in New York (where I have the good fortune to be vacationing at the moment) and Los Angeles. I am pleased to report that Tom Hooper's The King's Speech does not disappoint. Colin Firth, though not very similar in appearance to George VI, gives the performance of a lifetime as the insecure monarch who with the aid of unconventional Australian speech therapist Lionel Rogue (Geoffrey Rush in an equally admirable performance) overcomes a terrifying stammer to become an inspiring wartime leader as Britain enters World War II. Firth perfectly captures his character's discomfort, making the audience feel it painfully just as those who witnessed the young Duke of York's early attempts at public speaking must have done. The relief and pride when he finally manages to get through a broadcast without stuttering is thus all the more palpable.

A rather closer physical likeness is achieved with the brilliant casting of Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth (later known as the Queen Mother). For those of us who remember HM only as an elderly lady (albeit an exceptionally vibrant and lively one), it is refreshing to see her early years in the public eye portrayed as appealingly as Bonham Carter does. Of course, "Bertie" and Elizabeth never expected to be King and Queen; they were thrust into the position only by the abdication of his elder brother Edward VIII. For someone generally inclined to give royalty the benefit of the doubt, I've always held a rather low opinion of the king who abandoned his duty to marry a twice-divorced American woman, but never have I hated him more than in a particularly painful scene in a wine cellar when he taunts his younger brother. Guy Pearce (as the closest this movie comes to a "villain") must be given credit for believably conveying Edward's selfishness and callousness. I had the same reaction to Eve Best as I always have towards the real Wallis Simpson, namely, "Why?"--which means that she did her job. And Michael Gambon is much more convincing as King George V (mercifully with an untied beard) than he's ever been as Albus Dumbledore.

I can think of only two criticisms of this splendid film. One is a complaint that only a musician would make: as much as I normally love the powerfully tragic second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, I thought it was a bit odd to choose music by a German composer for the climactic scene in which the King, having finally mastered his speech impediment, addresses the nation on the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939. Surely either an original composition or something by a British composer (perhaps Elgar's "Nimrod") would have been more suitable. The other minor complaint is that Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill seems to be delivering more of a caricature than a real performance, as if he's impersonating a Churchill impersonator. But compared to the movie's countless strengths these are minor quibbles indeed. These strengths lie not only in the cast but also in the sets and costumes which bring a previous era (in this case the 1920s and 30s) to life as only the best period films do, the closest to time travel we are ever likely to experience. This is definitely a movie that should be seen on the big screen, not delayed until release on DVD, though I will probably buy the DVD when it comes out.

One point that non-monarchist reviewers are unlikely to make is how this movie highlights the way in which one of hereditary monarchy's perceived weaknesses can become one of its greatest strengths. Critics of monarchy complain that it involuntarily elevates individuals who are not necessarily particularly suitable for public life, and it is true that a man with George VI's handicap would have been unlikely to choose to pursue a career in politics and even more unlikely to succeed at it. Yet in the end King George VI did succeed beyond anyone's expectations, becoming not just an adequate but an exceptionally heroic head of state whose resilience (with that of his wife) was an essential component of British resistance in one of the most difficult periods of her history. There is a true nobility in his triumph which would be absent from a world in which prominent political roles were limited to those naturally gifted at public speaking. Edward VIII, once perceived as the flashier and more impressive brother, truly was unsuitable, but the point is the system worked; in the end Britain got the King she needed in her darkest and finest hour. And those of us who are committed to the preservation and restoration of hereditary monarchies can take pride in our allegiance to the only system of government that makes stories like the one told by this excellent film possible.

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