Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review: The King's Speech


"What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?" -- George Eliot (via Monica E. Smith)

It's a terrible thing to live in fear. But it's an entirely different thing to not only be unable to keep it private, but to have to face it on the global stage at a critical time in human history -- at which you are being looked to for leadership ... or weakness by your enemies.

This is the unenviable position Prince Albert (or "Bertie" and ultimately King George VI of England) finds himself in at the spectacular climax of "The King's Speech," and while we await what we know is coming, the journey to that point is incredible to watch.

Portrayed to perfection by Colin Firth, Bertie has been afflicted with a seemingly unconquerable stammer virtually all his life -- and after the death of his father, George V (Michael Gambon) and the abdication of his older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), the agonizingly reluctant Bertie accepts the crown, and does so when England is on the verge of declaring war on Germany, marking the dawn of WWII.

Let me just stop here to recognize Firth's performance, and to say that I can't imagine him not winning the Oscar for this role. From the opening minutes, when Bertie makes his heart-wrenching first speech at Wembley Stadium, Firth conveys every bit the fear, the embarrassment and the horror of being a regal figure with such an impediment, only to hear the mocking reverberations of his own stammer echoing throughout the stadium. Throughout the film, he displays a fully developed character, rich with emotions that also include humor, wit and charm, and we, too, are aware of the hours of preparation that were needed to master the evident technique that succeeds in portraying a realistic and not a hokey or exaggerated stutter.

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter
But no great movie relies solely on one great character, and we have two outstanding supporting actors to ensure that this is also the case here. Helena Bonham Carter plays Bertie's supporting wife, Elizabeth, who is delightfully peculiar while demonstrating unequivocal love and sympathy for her husband's plight. She has seeked out specialists of all kinds to help her husband, and when none have panned out, she finds another.

This man is Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian-born speech therapist who is also quite eccentric and offers his own unique brand of therapy to the short-tempered Bertie. What's critical here is that he's a "commoner," later we find him to be uncredentialed -- gasp! -- yet he's enlisted to help one who would be king. Lionel proves to Bertie early on that he may indeed be able to help, so the two proceed to have several very good scenes together, laying the foundation for what clearly is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. They work primarily, and colorfully, in Logue's drab home office, but proceed to a memorable sequence at Westminster Abbey as they rehearse for Bertie's coronation -- and Logue is with him to the end, when he delivers his speech that declares war and rallies his people behind him.

And what a flawless scene this is. I don't want to describe it fully, because the true experience lies in watching it play out, but with Elizabeth and Lionel by his side, Bertie's walk to the microphone is akin to one walking to his own execution; the microphone seemingly unveiled as an instrument of torture. And as he prepares to speak, and finally does, we're so emotionally invested in his journey to this point, the courage he's had to show, the myriad of agonizing challenges he's had to overcome -- combined with the support of his wife and the calming, silent coaching of Logue during this historic speech -- that I defy you to hold back your own emotion.

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush
This qualifies as one of the most inspiring films I've seen, and what continues to astonish me, is that it's another in a countless number of stories based on real life in which some of us seem to be chosen to live lives fraught with hardship, turmoil and quiet desperation. And it never ceases to amaze me that these people rise above it, when others (me!) would have given up ages ago, even as problem after problem mounts and countless setbacks are endured. Here, as prime minister Stanley Baldwin informs Bertie upon his coronation that he's resigning because of the impending war and then stoically tells him that "your greatest test ... is yet to come ..." you wonder how much more the guy can take as he stares blankly ahead, breathing deeply as he contemplates what he's going to have to go through, and that there's no way out.

What I like about this story specifically, is that it acknowledges that we all feel utterly alone at times with our own crosses to bear, our own unique hand that is dealt and our specific role to play. Yet, we are all human beings, equal in that aspect, trying to make our way in this world -- and how often the solutions to our problems seem to be in each other.

Here, a commoner uses his gifts to help a king, so that he, in turn, can fulfill his role. It provides the unmistakable sense that we are all connected, no matter the class system of the day, and that we are meant to freely ask our fellow man for a hand in our lives even as much as we are meant to offer our own.

1 comment:

Monica E. Smith said...

Once again you have given me a nudge, as I sit on the fence deciding whether to spend time on a movie. Thus far, I have not regretted any decision to see a movie based on your review. I'm sure this time it will be no different.

Whle sometimes I just want to be entertained, I absolutely love a movie that bleeds through to a deeper level. I love a movie that seems "timely", when compared to my own life. I love a movie that I can learn something from or that echoes my own beliefs; for instance, the knowledge that "...we are all human beings... trying to make our way in this world -- and how often the solutions to our problems seem to be in each other." This is something which I have been reminded of very recently (and, which is actually the basis for the Church's social teaching of a call to comunity, and the belief that we truly are our brothers' and sisters' keeper). It's amazing--but should be commonplace--the good that snowballs from the simple act of coming together...

Looking forward to this one.