Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Man Who Would Not Be King

There’s a Pinter play lurking beneath the Noel Coward surface of The King’s Speech, a two-hander about a man who cannot talk and a man who always natters entertainingly--a man to whom silence is a friend and one to whom silence is the enemy--a story that can only end when the chatterer becomes mute and the silent man orates. (Which I guess would really make it a Sam Shepard play.) (About brothers.)

You can see this other play all over Colin Firth’s face for most of the movie, which is why, whether or not he wins the Oscar for Best Actor, his Bertie Windsor is nothing short of brilliant. I don’t know how he does it, but there’s never a moment when you cannot see the wounded, wary boy looking out from behind Firth’s eyes, or not be uncomfortably aware that there is a lake of boiling lava beneath his stony exterior. It’s partly a physical thing: Firth’s Bertie is totally uncomfortable in his body, and his face seems always prepared to flinch in embarrassment. Which is to say he’s British through and through, as is the movie, in the stiff upper lip tradition of Coward’s In Which We Serve. But Firth’s upper lip is always on the verge of trembling, and he doesn’t show this through mugging, or indicating, or doing anything else under the camera’s ruthless eye but embodying. That’s the kind of acting that does not win awards, because it’s not showy enough; if anything, it’s the kind of acting that always gets you work, and the respect of your award-winning peers.

Deer? Meet headlights. Headlights? Deer.

It helps, of course, that Firth is playing opposite Geoffrey Rush, whose credit as an executive producer makes me think that he was the driving force behind getting this done, and (with a great actor’s instinct for surrounding himself with good people) choosing Firth to be his foil. (I’m trying to think of other actors who might have been in the running and drawing a very British blank. Guy Pearce strikingly resembles the historical George VI, but (a) he’s Australian and (b) he’s playing David the soon-to-be Duke of Windsor. Who else? Jude Law? That sound you hear is a suppressed guffaw.) Rush and Firth are perfect foils for each other, Rush the amused and amusing outsider and Firth the stiff and repressed vice president of the family firm. There's also a deliberate air of the court jester around Rush's Lionel Logue, never more apparent than the moment when he is discovered lounging on the royal throne. The laugh this gets is half "Uh oh, now he's done it," and half "Now THAT is how you puncture pomposity."

The script of this dark comedy of manners is clever enough here and there to earn a lot of laughs like that, and deep enough there and here to suggest, rather than dissect, the source of Bertie's stammer. For instance, one character towards the end of the film makes an implied analogy between shell-shocked World War I veterans and emotionally wounded children of overbearing fathers. In a movie about Americans, this would be the cause of much scene-chewing and a possible fistfight. In a movie about British royalty, it is politely ignored. In that sense, this is also a movie about the British character, and you find out all you need to know about that particular subject the moment the outgoing Prime Minister privately refers to Hitler as “Herr Hitler,” like a New York Times writer obeying his paper’s decree that all last names not on the Sports page, even those of mass murderers, must always have a respectful prefix. And when such (decorum? good manners? hidebound traditionalism?) is the norm, any deviation from it is magnified tenfold. When brother David mocks Bertie's stutter, it's vicous, cruel, and shameful. When Bertie loses his temper, it's almost embarrassing. When David breaks down and cries, it is embarrassing. (Actually, both brothers have a scene where they break down under the stress of the public role they are being asked to play; David’s is public and ludicrous, Bertie’s is private and heartbreaking.)

And y'know, now that I think about it? The entire structure of the movie is designed to build up repressed tension and then release it (as politely as possible) once every fifteen minutes or so, like a monster showing up in a horror movie, or a dance number in a Fred and Ginger film. And it works, thanks in no small part to the acting. The back and forth between Rush and Firth creates one of those wholes which is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also a distinct pleasure to see Helena Bonham-Carter rein in the batty and (I can’t believe I’m actually typing these words about her) act as the voice of reason. Eve Best channels her inner Bebe Neuwirth as Wallace Simpson. Michael Gambon's George V is a suitably tyrannical ogre. Timothy Spall plays Alfred Hitchcock playing Winston Churchill. And Guy Pearce's David nearly steals the movie; he's such a besotted git that you want to slap him. (Watching Pearce, I kept thinking that someone should cast him as the Duke of Windsor in Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words, one of the best fictional examinations of the curious passion that British and German fascists had for each other.) (It also delivers one of the cleverest solutions to the Harry Oakes murder mystery.)

So, yes, an interesting and engrossing movie which implies depths it does not deign to sound, and treats its audience as intelligently as possible until (alas) the climax, when the final speech of the title (it is a pun, after all) is not only delivered over, but exquisitely timed to, the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. This is outrageously manipulative. It's the Masterpiece Theatre version of that endless rock and roll medley during the Viet Nam scenes of Forrest Gump. And what made it even worse for me? It totally worked. So all I can say is, if you watch that scene and you don’t get a lump in your throat, or then find yourself laughing and crying at the same time when Firth gives a classic self-deprecating remark at the speech’s end, then, well, you’re probably British.

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