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The King’s Speech

May 5, 2011

King George bursts into song to practice speaking.  Camptown Races is fine, Swanee River is fine, but Once Upon a Dream had not even been written at that time, and wouldn’t be until 1959, for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Iris rates this film: Just Okay


Okay, that isn’t fair, to seem to dismiss a film for a single anachronism.  I’m not changing my rating, but I do have actual reasons for rating it thus.

First of all, some good things.  The performances, as most of you know or have heard, are really quite good.  Firth delivers a comprehensive stammer that had me sinking into the sofa with second-hand embarrassment.  I was sympathetic to his character and identified easily with his hang-ups and fears, not because I harbor any similar, but because the part was well-written and human.  Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist has more to work with in terms of character and expression, and though he performs very well, it’s almost because of this that Firth runs away with the show: the scope of Bertie’s character exceeds the range of emotions appropriate for or befitting his station, and this battle between Bertie the man and King George the figure-head is visible through the subtly and restraint of Firth’s portrayal.

Bonham Carter is the weakest of the three, in the role of…Queen.  If I haven’t caught the character’s name after two hours, it must not matter very much.  Anyway, her performance was far from poor, but it was transparent at times, and rather than watching her character, I could see the wheels turning as Bonham Carter played the character, which is always disconcerting, especially opposite Firth’s exceedingly strong performance.  What she may have been able to get away with in other roles didn’t fly here, and I more than once caught her at a loss for what to do with her hands.  However, I did enjoy her moments as the Pushy Noblewoman trope, as much as that trope annoys me in general.  That brings me to what brought the movie down for me, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s extremely subjective.

I  have difficulty watching monarchy-themed movies, probably because I’m American and the cultural context sails right past me.  It was fascinating to watch Rush’s spirited Lionel still to cold anxiety in the face of Bonham Carter’s whoever in blue-blooded hell she was.  Obviously, as mentioned above, it wasn’t the performances I found problematic, but the apparent cultural belief that the nobility is excused from civility and basic courtesy.  If Michelle Obama showed up in my kitchen, she certainly wouldn’t preface the encounter with  “You may call me Your First Ladiness.”  That’s just straight obnoxious. You don’t qualify for automatic awe just because you inherited the throne; I’ll respect you when you earn my respect.

Americans don’t want to be governed by anyone we don’t think would fit in at the family barbecue, least of all by those who believe themselves too good for our barbecue. This royal family definitely thought they were too good for any barbecue, and they might get away with that in England, but people immigrated to this country expressly to get away from that brand of bullshit.  The value system on which this country was founded is completely different:  Big News, I know.  I’m not saying one is better, I’m just explaining why the context of the movie set a rift with me from the very beginning.  I can’t judge the quality of the film on that criterion, but obviously it influenced my overall enjoyment.

The movie is long, somewhere around two hours.  In that time it meanders a bit trying to convey the circumstances of Bertie’s condition.  While I never felt it was dragging, there were an awful lot of circumstances that need covering, from his overbearing father the king, to his teasing brother, the heir to the throne; plus multiple incidents of crippling anxiety facing a crowd.  I don’t know that for all that information the story arced as well as it could have.  By the end of the story, this guy still can’t speak in public.  I liked the contrast of the confident sounding voice on the radio against shots of the nervous wreck delivering the speech at the end, but really?  This guy has loosened up, kind of.  He’s a little bit better at public speaking, except that wasn’t even public speaking.  He was standing in an enclosed room with his speech therapist, which is not at all similar to the conditions of the film’s opening non-speech before thosands.  I think it’s interesting though that the radio, the bane of his public life, becomes an unforeseen boon when he can just deliver his speeched in private and then wave it off on the balcony afterwards.  There were interesting things going on throughout the entire thing; I’m just saying, for a two hour film, becoming marginally better at public speaking doesn’t really cut it.  Becoming somewhat less of an asshole to your friend and articulation coach isn’t really a very strong character arc.

Maybe I’m just used to the sweeping success stories of American Cinema.  Actually, it’s not as though I needed him to become a phenomenal public speaker.  I didn’t need him to open up and become a completely different person.  But the sum of all these subtle changes could have left a greater impact, possibly, again, if I were British and had a better historical context for King George VI.  I don’t know anything about this guy but what the film gave me; I have no idea what sort of reputation he garnered during World War II.   I imagine understanding George VI historically adds dimension to the character, but frankly such an argument in support of the film is fallacious.  Most movies aren’t biographical and thus are required to build characters from scratch.  That most movies are worse than this one is beside the point: I’m saying it can and has been done often, so I’m not letting The King’s Speech off the hook.  Character building was there, but it seems like they were relying on history to tell the second half of the story, which doesn’t even make sense.  A story from start to finish is a closed circuit.  History may present context, it may be the allure of certain types of films, but it’s no substitute for content.

In all good films audiences either want what the protagonist wants, or emphatically hope for the opposite.  It’s called emotional investment, and it wasn’t clear what ours was supposed to be in this film.  Does Bertie want to become king?  Does he want a close friend?  Does he want to be a powerful speaker?  Sort of, to all of the above.  If I’m not sure what the protagonist really wants, how am I supposed to empathize when he does or doesn’t get it?  Bertie sort of wants all of those things, he sort of gets them, and he’s sort of happy about it.  Okay, well, that’s why it was only a sort of good film.  Hence, I reiterate:

This film is Just Okay.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Adelaide permalink
    August 2, 2015 2:32 am

    The tune is from “The Garland Waltz” (aka “Grande valse villageoise”) from the Sleeping Beauty ballet score by Tchaikovsky, completed in 1889 and first performed in 1899.

    Disney adapted the motif in “The Garland Waltz” and arranged its iconic “Once Upon a Dream” around that motif.

    It’s true that the tune is most recognisable in its Disney Sleeping Beauty incarnation, but the ballet would’ve been well around during George VI’s time! 😀

  2. August 3, 2015 7:16 am

    Haha good to know! I guess I have to eat my words.

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