Friday, December 24, 2010

 

The "O" Word


By Josh R
I have one rule when it comes to reviewing films: I try not to use the “O” word. With one notable exception, I’ve stuck to my guns even when writing about films that I knew had some serious “O” love coming to them — whether my verdict was hot (Happy-Go-Lucky), cold (Rachel Getting Married), medium (Doubt) or a sub-arctic blast of untrammeled bile the likes of which could plunge North America into its next Ice Age (oh, Babel, the frosty times we’ve had.)

My reasons for this are threefold. Like Mr. Copeland, who uses the dreaded word more than I do but has always managed to keep it in its proper place, I’m not sure exactly what awards handicapping has to do with legitimate film criticism. You want odds, go to Vegas; a review should read like a review, not a scouting report. In the second place, reliance on The “O” word is an excuse for laziness; it’s easy to take the convenient shortcut of “So-and-so gives an Oscar-worthy performance!” rather than actually discussing what made a performance great — the latter requires not only effort and imagination, but a decent working vocabulary. For the record, none of the excellent contributors to this blog — fine writers and analysts — have ever been guilty of the sins described above. As for some of the critics whose opinions most often wind up as single-sentence blurbs in print ads, well…using the “O” word will definitely get your name in the paper.

Finally, to frame any discussion of a film’s merits within the context of “O” implies that The Academy Awards are the ultimate barometer of quality in the motion picture industry. Which is just silly. For the record, I actually like The Oscars — albeit on the same level that I enjoy Dancing with the Stars and Olympic figure skating — but to view them as the yardstick by which we should measure artistic success in the cinematic medium is kind of like viewing Wikipedia as the ultimate authority on global history and culture. Lily Tomlin once described The Oscars as “classic American kitsch,” and that’s an apt assessment — equal parts glitzy industry trade show and highly entertaining spectator sport, the proceedings are informed as much by politics, popularity and pettiness as the vagaries of subjective taste. They’re impossible to take seriously. For all those who maintain that The Oscars are everything that they purport to be, I’ll offer up this in response: You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

As it happens, I have nothing against pigs — they make for some good eatin’ — and I’m not so scandalized by the fundamentally absurd nature of The Academy Awards that I can’t follow them obsessively once the politicking and pageantry kick into hyperdrive. Nor do I take my highfalutin ideals about film criticism quite so seriously that I can’t forsake them every now and again. When I bandied the “O” word like a verbal volleyball in my vivisection of La Vie en Rose, it was because I specifically wanted to address the manner in which certain folk were bashing one Oscar hopeful’s performance as a means of promoting the candidacy of another. I’m going to station the coveted statuette front-and-center once again in my discussion of The King’s Speech, because I’m really not sure how else to talk about it. As it happens, this stately biopic chronicling King George VI’s ascension to The Throne of England — a climb made rocky by virtue of the speech impediment he had to conquer en route — is a well-made, enjoyable film. It is also a film that feels as though it were conceived and executed for one purpose and one purpose alone — namely, to be nominated for (and win) Academy Awards. Some films are made for love, others still for money; it’s clear that some love went into The King’s Speech, but it’s not some little shoestring indie that was made without expectation or ulterior motive. Even when it achieves something greater than its aims — which, thanks to the resourcefulness of Colin Firth, it very often does — every frame seems to be flashing the words For Your Consideration.


The plot plays almost like an inversion of Shaw’s Pygmalion; when it was being pitched to studio execs, it was probably described (in Oscarspeak) as My Fair Lady turned inside out. Instead of the common flower girl being drilled in elocution so she can pass for royalty, in The King’s Speech, a Royal is taught to speak in such a way that he becomes more acceptable, as both a leader and figurehead, to the common man. In the tense, uncertain days leading up to WWII, Firth’s Duke of York (Bertie to his intimates) is second in line to the throne and a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time player in the theater of public relations. Lacking the polish and glamour of his brother Edward (Guy Pearce), he is hampered by a nasty stammer that rears its head at inopportune moments, making him a bit of a national laughingstock. Ironically, the dapper, microphone-ready Prince of Wales can barely hold a candle to his stammering sibling in the character department. As proof that image often trumps truth, it the conscientious, level-headed son — possessed of all the qualities necessary to shepherd his subjects through a period of war and strife — who is treated as an object of ridicule, while the feckless, wishy-washy Prince of Wales is a figure of adulation.

Egged on by his supportive wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Prince Albert seeks out the services of the Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose methods prove as unconventional as his manner — he treats his new charge as he would any other patient, starting with his blunt refusal to address him as “Your Highness.” It’s an uneasy relationship that eventually develops into a bond of genuine trust and friendship — soon to become of vital importance to the nation when the heir apparent abdicates the throne in order to marry an American divorcee. In order for Prince Albert to assume the mantle of King George V, his must literally find his own voice — one unmarred by defect.

Defect is something which is not much in evidence in the film itself, and that’s very much by design. With golden goodies on the brain, director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler play things safe, safe, safe. To be fair, The King’s Speech is not the only film in the marketplace blatantly trolling for Oscar gold — that’s a characteristic shared, to varying degrees, by most of the films released in the waning months of the calendar year. If the syndrome feels more pronounced in this context, that’s a reflection of how few risks Hooper and Seidler have taken, stylistically or otherwise, and the extent to which their product adheres to the rules set forth by the Oscar playbook. It ticks off every box on the list (British accents, check…based on a true story, check… costume & art direction that are pure period porn, check…), and has been cast to the gills with the sort of performers whose very participation bespeaks Class with a capital C; blink-and-you-miss-them bit players include Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle, Timothy Spall, Eve Best, Anthony Andrews and Claire Bloom. There is nothing unexpected or even particularly creative about the way the material’s been shaped; as lush as the design aspects of the film are, it’s fitting that the dominant color is brown. The filmmakers know exactly who their audience is, and The King’s Speech works on the level it’s supposed to — it has no personality, but it covers its bases.

A film that exists purely on the level of Oscarbait is not such a bad thing when it furnishes an opportunity for great actors to strut their stuff, and if The King’s Speech lacks something in terms of inspiration, that’s not a trait shared by the performances. After his deliciously over-the-top vamping in Broadway’s Exit the King, Rush adroitly shifts gears with his subtle, finely calibrated turn as the quietly charismatic speech therapist. Logue is someone who can stand toe-to-toe with both King and Court, but without raising his voice or going in for grandstanding; given the actor’s occasional penchant for scenery-chewing, it’s nice to see him pull in the reins and portray a character on a smaller, more human scale. The film also provides a refreshing change of pace for Bonham Carter, who’s spent most of the past decade studiously avoiding the type of period, literary-seeming roles on which her early reputation was based. It can’t be much fun for an actress to go through her career feeling like a Victorian dress-up doll; that said, her more recent efforts (primarily for her husband, Tim Burton, an unparalleled visual stylist who has never really seemed to grasp what constitutes good acting) have favored a style based in feverishly antic caricature, emphasizing the grotesque and with less-than-scintillating results. Commercial success aside, it’s not a style which showcases her talents to best advantage — and has produced more than its fair share of squirm-inducing moments, of the ilk that have sent other actresses on the prowl for good divorce lawyers (if there’s any better grounds for trial separation than Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight, it’s Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd.) Here, Bonham Carter is back in Merchant Ivory mode, and delivers a fine, understated performance — one which actually allows her to display some backbone beneath the period fashions she models.

As fine as the entire cast is, The King’s Speech belongs — as well it should — to The King himself, and Colin Firth once again demonstrates that he is among the best, most indispensable actors working in films today. The thing that distinguishes Firth as a performer — as evidenced by his stellar work in projects as diverse as the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’ Diary and A Single Man — is the remarkable degree of emotional transparency he brings to characters who make it their business to keep their emotions in check. He doesn’t need to resort to showy effects to reveal what a character is thinking and feeling; he communicates it through the slightest of inflections and gestures, so that even while his countenance remains stoic, the inner life of the character is brought into full and glorious focus. I’m not a fan of strenuous acting; when I watch the tightly clenched whirrings and grindings of Daniel Day-Lewis, I often have the sensation of being able to feel the tension in his face and body, to say nothing of his vocal chords — apart from My Left Foot, it’s an approach that has always felt distinctly unnatural (there’s a school of thought that asserts that if it looks painful to do, it must be brilliant.) Firth lives on the opposite end of the spectrum — he achieves his effects so simply that you’re never conscious of any element of artifice; because you don’t catch him acting, everything he does seems to be rooted in truth. It’s why his work as the grieving professor in A Single Man had such devastating emotional impact; if The King’s Speech, staidly packaged little Oscar vehicle that it is, doesn’t quite allow him to go to those places, the actor still manages to give the impression of having created a characterization which feels completely fresh, unhindered in any way by the limitations of the material. Without him, The King’s Speech would be a nice, pleasant little film which would linger in memory about as long as your average morning cup of coffee. Because of what Firth brings to it, it exceeds its own ambitions.

Given the nature of this piece — and how many of my own rules I’ve broken in the process of writing it — it wouldn’t be fitting to let Mr. Firth off the hook without one mention of the “O” word. For anyone out there looking for a quick, blurb-able soundbite of the type I’ve grown to loathe, just this once I am willing to oblige. Colin Firth delivers an Oscar-worthy performance.

God, I feel dirty now.


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Comments:
Very perceptive review, but I feel obliged to point out that the Duke of York became George VI, not George V (who was his dad).
 
This was one of hell of piece. Couldn't agree with you more.
 
Thank you for the correction, Tim - I was one off!
 
While Firth, Rush and Carter are all great, the movie itself never grabbed me and I kept getting distracted by the decision to have Guy Pearce play Firth's older brother. In real life Pearce was born in 67, Firth in 60, but Pearce looks a lot younger in a lot of scenes. They should have tried to make him look older. Also, Timothy Spall may make the worst Churchill I have ever seen. I really don't see why everyone is being so knocked out by this.
 
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