by Raj Ranade
Does “Oscar bait” really mean what it used to? Plenty of critics have already slapped that label on The King’s Speech, a film that practically wallows in the kind of subject matter that has traditionally dominated the Academy Award nominations in past decades – it’s a period piece, a biopic, a film about the British aristocracy, a film about a mental disability, and a film related to World War II (much hay has been made about these categories). The only issue with this theory comes when you actually look at the past four winners of Best Picture – blood-soaked thrillers, films set in contemporary times, one oddball indie largely in Hindi. There’s a school of thought which says that the Academy was embarassed by its iffy past choices and now is less interested in approved subject matter than it is in (gasp!) quality (although I do apologize for dragging words like “school” and “thought” into a discussion about something as silly as the Oscars).
The King’s Speech, then, might be pandering to an Academy standard which no longer really exists, which is just one of many ways in which the film seems adorably quaint. Quaintness isn’t necessarily a bad thing – movies in general have a magical ability to make us care deeply about problems and value systems with no relevance to our own lives (or even reality, for that matter). And for large chunks of the running time here, director Tom Hooper wrings a surprising amount of audience empathy out of a story which, in its gauzy, nostalgia-glazed view of monarchs and the instituion of British monarchy, seems like a time capsule from a pre-Sex-Pistols era.
The core of that empathy comes from a universal fear which, at least according to the old Seinfeld routine, is more terrifying than death itself – the fear of public speaking. Bertie (Colin Firth) has more reason to fear this than most, since he’s required to regularly deliver speeches to vast crowds as son of the king even though his debilitating stutter only allows him to croak out a word or two at a time. A series of hacks fail to cure the prince with their asinine remedies (which include stuffing the prince’s mouth with marbles), and it’s up to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an irreverent speech-therapist Mr. Miyagi with a variety of unorthodox methods, to stop the prince’s stammering.
The satisfying heart of this movie is in the way that this patient-therapist relationship slowly turns into a warm class-crossing friendship, and the actors playing that pair are really worth the price of admission on their own. As the prince, Firth is a marvel in playing a walking bundle of contradictions. His performance captures a man who realizes the vestigial nature of his position even as his actions and demeanor betray a subconscious belief in royal superiority, a shy man with low self-confidence who can still burst into violent assertions of his importance. Rush is less naturalistic and more hammy than Firth here, but it’s a pleasure to see him poke at the prince’s pretensions and gradually strip away the childhood traumas and self-doubt haunting the man, and his methods, one involving a comical flood of profanity, are a riot.
When the movie strays from this central relationship, however, the quaintness starts to kick in at groan-inducing levels. Bertie ends up as king when his father dies and his elder brother disgraces the throne by (hold on to your monocle!) marrying an American divorcee, and it’s at this point where the film stops gently mocking the self-importance of the royal family and starts buying into it. This leads to an overblown climax where Bertie’s small personal victory in successfully reading a declaration of war (prepared for him by his staff) is played like a truly inspiring moment of leadership – hard to really buy when fiery-“We shall fight them on the beaches”-orator and actual decision-maker Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall, who seems to have been told to suck on a lemon for the entirety of his face-scrunching performance) is depicted as standing just outside the broadcast room.
Ill-advised grasps at grandeur aside, though, there’s enough rich human detail here in the performances to keep your attention. There’s even flashes of the kind of visual inspiration that are rare in this kind of middlebrow entertainment – particularly Hooper’s love of grotesque close-ups on faces distorted with emotion (or marbles), which nicely break up the abiding classiness of the rest of the affair. All that said, don’t be fooled by the Oscar buzz surrounding this thing. In terms of cinematic ambition, this is a pale shadow of the truly great films of the year. But great ambition isn’t necessary to make a satisfying film, and as it turns out, this film about a grand historical figure is really at its best when it is being modest.
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