Saturday, January 15, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: The King's Speech

THE KING'S SPEECH-- 5 STARS

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Internet Movie Database

It seems like every year in December there's a movie that gets pegged with the label of "Oscar bait." The label indicates that its sole purpose is to unabashedly gain the prestige of Academy Award nominations and wins with showy performances, esteemed credentials, stories you can't turn away from, and a massive amount of "For Your Consideration" marketing.  Those movies, or victims, are most commonly produced and distributed by the Weinstein brothers of TWC (The Weinstein Company) or their previous home of Miramax, known for their stuff-it-down-your-throat endorsement of their films.

While always being a haven for foreign and independent film, the TWC/Miramax track record of molding hits and nabbing Oscars has worked for nearly 20 years.  Films and performers from The Crying Game, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, The Cider House Rules, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chocolat, Cold Mountain, The Hours, Chicago, Finding Neverland, The Queen, No Country for Old Men, and The Reader have benefited from their push and likely wouldn't have had the chance to succeed at other studios.  Four of the films from that list have won Best Picture.  Still, whether the films are deserving on their own or a product of the manufactured hype, this track record has created the fashionable, yet cursed, label of "Oscar bait" to the annual entry from the Weinstein brothers.

This year's "Oscar bait" tag to bear the push and pressure has been placed on The King's Speech, just the third feature film from director Tom Hooper.  Where some films from that hype machine (Chocolat, The Hours, Cold Mountain) didn't deserve the attention, The King's Speech is absolutely phenomenal and deserving of every magazine advertisement and word-of-mouth push it can get.  Compared to Inception and The Social Network and the attention that they have commanded so far this year, The King's Speech may just pull a Shakespeare in Love-over-Saving Private Ryan upset this coming February.

One of the reasons why this film might pull off that level of an upset is because it's a feel-good story alongside its dramatic discourse of history, and audiences (and award voters for that matter) gravitate to those two genre elements like no other.  Even a horror movie will see the turnstiles move a little more than usual if you throw a "based on a true story" in its opening credits or on its lobby poster.  The King's Speech follows a unique relationship between a common man and a man of royalty.

Colin Firth plays Prince Albert, the Duke of York, son of King George V, and second in line for the throne of the British Empire when our story begins in 1925.  Accompanied by his stalwart wife, Elizabeth (a pleasantly-composed Helena Bonham Carter), we are introduced to the Prince having a terrible time attempting to speak in public at the Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium.  We soon learn, as do the gathered masses in front of him and the millions of radio listeners around the world, that Albert has deeply troublesome stammer.  It haunts him and even scares him from telling his young daughters Elizabeth (who we all know grows up into the Queen Elizabeth II of today) and Margaret bedtime stories for fear of their inevitable disappointment in their supposedly great father.

Behind the scenes, Albert and Elizabeth have tried nearly everything to secretly seek therapy for his condition out of the public eye.  After many attempts, Albert gives up, but Elizabeth takes the guise of "Mrs. Johnson" and tries one more lead behind her husband's back.  She meets Lionel Logue (the sublime Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist and former struggling actor from Perth, Australia who now resides in London.  Lionel, not knowing who Elizabeth really is or who she's representing, confidently outlines his strict "my castle, my rules" guidelines and boundaries for his practice.  When Elizabeth coaxes Albert to see this one last person, he too is unconvinced of his methods and rules and won't lower himself to equal his disposition with that of a commoner, let alone a "colonial" from Australia.

However, after just a single session and a friendly wager, Logue proves to Albert his potential to conquer his stammer, thus beginning their newfound working relationship.  Logue insists on daily sessions, always at his office, no matter the inconvenience, where he and "Bertie," as he begins to call him, work through rigorous physical voice conditioning and speech training.  In spite of much progress, though, that's not enough or at all the root of Albert's stammer.  Logue knows that, for most patients, problems such as this are as much mental as they are physical.  Part of his therapy seeks to get Albert to become comfortable with Logue, despite his position and title, and open up about the history, fear, and stress that created his stammer.  If the very private Albert can do that, then real healing can begin and, just maybe, a friendship, more than a partnership, can grow.

The King's Speech tells this very personal story of therapy and friendship in such an exquisitely grand and fulfilling way.  First off, from a filming standpoint, the movie creates two very diverse and rich atmospheres and settings at the same time.  On one side, you have the very imposing locales of royalty and a tight camera that keenly seems to always put Albert alone in the center of your view with his fear and the scale of his situation towering behind him.  By contrast, much of our story takes place in Lionel's office, a place of far less grandeur and a point-of-view of watching from across the room as two men slowly get to understand one another.  It's a fascinating dual creation of style, detail, and mood.

For all of the smart filmmaking to really shine, the acting of The King's Speech had to match.  It's nice to see Helena Bonham Carter not have to act crazy (the many Tim Burton roles and her Bellatrix Lestrange character in the Harry Potter series) to prove her immense talent.  The same can be said for Geoffrey Rush.  He'll always be a comedian (Shakespeare in Love), but when he turns his focus on (Munich, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) and the clown (the Pirates of the Caribbean series) seeking a paycheck off, he's a masterful actor.  Both Rush and Carter put forth nomination-worthy performances after years of slumming it.

Make no mistake, though, this is Colin Firth's movie.  Firth has been a great ensemble actor (take his Mr. Darcy in the TV version of Pride and Prejudice and the twist of the same part in Bridget Jones's Diary), just one lead part away his whole career of becoming something special.  Last year's A Simple Man, playing a tortured homosexual 1960's American college professor, deservedly brought him his first Oscar nomination, but his role here crosses new territory with its unimaginably difficulty.  How does one of the smoothest British actors out there, one who could play James Bond if he wanted, intentionally and believably create a stutter and stammer?  It's an incredible and brilliant performance that, in this critic's opinion, will bring home the Oscar he nearly won last year.  His performance in The King's Speech is alone worth the price of admission but, at the same time, you will most definitely be treated to an amazing story and one of the year's best films.  Get out at appreciate this movie!

LESSON #1: THE COLOSSAL DIFFICULTIES OF A SPEECH IMPEDIMENT-- Public speaking has always been one of peoples' greatest fears.  Now imagine you have a speech impediment on top of that.  The movie makes it very clear, but speech impediments create a great many awkward situations and feelings, most of all for the speaker.  Even in smaller cases than that of the King of England, problems like stammering, stuttering, lisps, and etc. are extremely difficult things to overcome both medically and psychologically.  There are no gimmicks or quick fixes.  You will find a new-found respect for not only those living with these difficulties, but also the speech-language pathologists you remember from school after this movie.

LESSON #2: FEAR AND HUMILIATION CAN SCAR FOR LIFE--  With already-present difficulties of having a speech impediment, the accompanying fear and humiliation from it don't help.  Mentally tackling the problem and the inherent feeling that you are going to fail creates a massive fear inside.  Combine that with constant humiliation, badgering, judging, teasing, and imitation and lifelong scars can be created.  In The King's Speech, it multiplies worse when we hear King Edward speak to Logue about being forcefully berated and corrected for not just his stammering, but also his appearance, left-handedness, and knocked-knees as a royal youth.

LESSON #3: THE POWER OF THERAPY IN ALL ITS SHAPES AND FORMS-- The light at the end of the tunnel from those difficulties, fears, and scars is the power of therapy, in all its presented forms.  Logue rehabilitates not just the stammer, but the King's own psyche and heart.  It's bigger than the student-teacher relationship this reviewer discussed for The Karate Kid.  His loving wife never looks down on him or leaves him, but seeks to support him every way.  Whether its medical or personal, the support of therapy is beneficial and powerful.

LESSON #4: THE SEPARATED LIVES OF ROYALTY AND THEIR SUBJECTS-- It's amazing to see in any movie that looks inside the lives of British royalty, how incredibly different and detached their lives are from their commoner subjects.  They are "bred" to be above others.  They get called titles and never their own names, even by their own children.  They don't carry money and never cook.  It borderlines on clinical anti-social problems.  In addition to the problems of his youth, to observe "Bertie" change his level of interaction with Logue throughout the movie from unequal subject to finding a true friend is as sad and foreign as it is rewarding.

LESSON #5: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WANTING AND NOT WANTING GREATNESS-- Some people seek greatness and long for it with every opportunity they have to ascend.  Others know their role, are patient with their path, or or afraid of that greatness, especially if that greatness is thrust upon them.  People always say that they want to be rich and famous, yet forget about the incredible pressure and stress created with that greatness and responsibility that comes with it.  Now imagine, in today's world of high-definition, networking, and microphones that you have physical flaw that you can't control.  That pressure and stress then multiplies.