Tuesday, January 4, 2011

God Save the King

Sometimes you want a film to be really good, but when expectations are so inflated, the outcome can turn out to be less than its estimated value. That sort of thing happened to me back in early 2009 when I went to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I don't think I'd ever before been so ready to embrace a film, to immediately rank it upon my favourite films of all time, only to be disappointed. I felt the film was too prestigious for its own good. It was over-long, too drawn out. All style, luscious cinematography, visually capturing its different time periods, but not really having much heart. To me it cried out 'Oscar-bait'.

So I awaited the release of 2010's The King Speech with some caution. Generally I'm a fan of period dramas, but lavish costumes and art designs can't save a weak story. But it has it turned out, the film was engaging, depicting a moment in history and giving it the royal treatment, so to speak.

The film follows the ascension to the throne by King George VI (played notably by Colin Firth). It isn't the most notable ascension, as George himself notes. After his father passed away, his brother Edward was meant to be the next monarch, but an ill-fitting marriage to twice-divorced Wallis Simpson makes it improper for him to keep his position. So younger brother George, plagued with a speech impediment, gets the throne by default. A little earlier in the film, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) had already sent for the eccentric Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), but it is when George becomes king that Logue really becomes of service.

Such a short summary doesn't really get to the heart of the film. It really is somewhat of a parallel journey between two men (Firth and Rush) who forge an unexpected and moving friendship. King George is a man with a self-confidence crisis fuelled by his stammering. I think Firth's performance becomes amazing when you really examine what he does with it. King George shouldn't be the most exciting character, not with his awkward introversion and his temper. Yet Firth, supported by the story arc, taps deeply into George's insecurities and invites us to empathise with them. Here is a man who wants to succeed, with a sense of duty and integrity so lacking in his brother. That added quirk of his character is his self-deprecating dry humor which reveal an insightful, perceptive, sensitive man. Firth's is a performance which adds layers with every scene, and so by the end of a film you feel the enrichment of a complete, whole character with whom you have developed an acquaintance.

Rush is equally effective in his characterisation of Lionel. On the outside he's a peculiar man with non-orthodox techniques of speech therapy that are incredibly effective. Deeper inside he's a man who didn't fufill his full ambitions, and who, as the film progresses, settles his energies on helping the king become the fulfilled man he is capable of being. There's a slight case of living vicariously through another that registers in Rush's performance. But Lionel pushes any subtle hint of this aside, and his unrelenting belief in Firth is inspiring. He holds King George's emotions, just as any good therapist would, and there's one scene in particular where Firth is describing some of his childhood, where a shot of Rush's face shows complete sympathy. It too is a layered performance, and perfectly balanced by the pro that Rush is.

Helena Bonham Carter doesn't have quite as much to work with as Firth or Rush, but still it is nice to see her outside of a Tim Burton film once in a while. Her major asset to the film is the constant support she shows to Firth's King George. She's almost Myrna-Loy-esque wife and mother of the year calibre. There's a genuine classiness, sweetness and assuredness to her role that makes her an ideal balance to her stammering husband.

If I have any qualms about the film, it is with the score than with anything else. While Alexandre Desplat's score is lovely and moving, I couldn't help but feel it was overused and too obvious a ploy for sentiment. I felt some of the scenes had enough strength within the story and performances and didn't need the score overhead. I wouldn't be surprised if this is a minority opinion, but I just felt the score sometimes went against the film. But hey, maybe it wouldn't have been such an emotional experience without it?

As period dramas go, I felt the film was very evocative of its 1930s setting, with the costume and art design being very good. There was a nice piece of cinematography during the king's important wartime speech near the end, in which the king waits for the red buzzer to stop flashing for him to start his speech. Well, rather than turning to the buzzer, the camera stays on Firth's face as the red flashes on and off upon it. I thought that was a pretty effective little touch to the scene.

Overall I really enjoyed this one. The story and performances in particular elevate it from standard period drama to something more inspiring.

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