Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The King's Speech

* * * * *

(Dir. Tom Hooper, 2010)

Somehow, the author and journalist Christopher Hitchens has found time to squeeze into his shrunken daily grind, and into the circularism of the movie reviewing business, an unexpected piece. Amid the fervour in the States (Americans just love regal, British numbers), and on contrarian service, Hitchens hones in on the various untruths in The King's Speech, particularly the transmogrifications of Hitler's pal, Edward VIII, and Winston Churchill - whose depiction comes closer to the Car Insurance, nodding-dog namesake, than the Prime Minister hero.

The role of Churchill is attempted by the normally effective, normally less significantly casted, Timothy Spall - recognisable as assistant to both Sweeney Todd and Lord Voldemort. In Orwellian ink, the tone of the article is hardly surprising. Problematic as facts are, however, The King's Speech is really nothing more (or less) than a showpiece of storymaking and storytelling. And Spall has barely a handful of script. Director Tom Hooper (Longford, The Damned United) might have broached this in his history-lesson endnote, but then what kind of auteur makes a confession moments before his name appears?

The based-on-a-true-story patter might inconvenience a biographer, and yet for those immersed in the drama, Hooper has furnished a humble and funny flickering of spectacle. His dialogue captures the ethical and historical wonder of a contemporary phenomenon: the nonsensing of guilt through revelation: psychoanalysis.

The best of this script is shared by a protagonist with a speech defect, the future George VI (Colin Firth), and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), although Helena Bonham Carter's affectionate turn as George's wife, the late Queen Mother, deserves mentioning. After failing to speak at a packed Wembley Stadium (a scene likely to fascinate any football fan with a sense of history), George is advised by Elizabeth to recruit Logue, an Australian who is secretly unqualified and has abandoned conventional hypnosis in the belief that talking is what works.

After establishing an informal routine (in the film, anyway, he calls the King by his private nickname: Bertie), Logue discovers that George's stutter is the souvenir of a nightmarish royal childhood, rather than something innate. The son without the charisma, George is bullied into an irrelevance that lasts until after he has fathered two children. Logue makes his first breakthrough by turning to something like Breuer's principle: 'a high degree of the restriction of the field of vision' (Studies on Hysteria). Having failed not to stutter, when reading anything previously handed to him, George is now headphoned with instrumental music, all presences are muted, and his task is to read the most famous lines in Hamlet: the soliloquy on self-preservation and self-execution. When he eventually hears the recording, it is a perfectly spoken Hamlet - "To be", but one who still has it all to do.

The promised, delayed action is what is so attractive about The King's Speech. A death, an abdication and a brief abandonement of Logue will have to happen before George even sits on the throne. A favourite frame of mine, when the pair fall out, is Colin Firth slowing his angry walk-away to light a cigarette in a single flash of flame. It is such a rare composed action that it fills the screen with breath and depth; the facial expression is legitimised as expression, as it stops frowning out a defence.

The war is imminent, and when brother, King Edward VIII, swiftly abdicates to continue banging his mistress overseas, the newly crowned George must prove himself, which means his voice, to England. It is not until the final preparations - for the speech that will prepare England for war - that the most important breakthrough is made. Alone with Logue and a gruesome archbishop, George's frustration pinnacles at Westminster Abbey. When his (speech) therapist asks, "Why would I waste my time listening to you?", and the King answers, crisply, "Because I have a voice!", the past has finally been addressed. Like a repaired, old vinyl, the language has had its scratches removed.

The end of the movie is the politicisation of talking cure, from the palace to the ordinary household, via the BBC World Service. The power of surveillance is dumbed and pointed elsewhere. Whatever the propaganda, George's courage seems a deliberate, superb antonym for totalitarianism. For a public that still had 'faith' in its monarchy, The King's Speech is historically principled in at least this respect. Anything modern-smooth about the cinematography - each cut is very beautifully leashed - does not detract from the fidgets and stutters, and deeper and deeper into the film, the credible shots of ceremony. Closure, meanwhile, is taken for granted. We know how this war ends and so its prologue, spoken here at the end, is already, proudly received. It is a performance, a speech, that exhales on behalf of the spectator, leaving the throat dry.

Tom Hooper's movie is the only royal event in 2011 worth tuning in for. Having dominated at the BAFTAs, the accomplices of The King's Speech will fancy their chances at the Oscars this month. I am still unsure as to what, if anything, Inception has to say about people. Neither Freud nor Lacan can be ventriloquised by me, but while their teachings are vulgarised in Christopher Nolan's first weak film, I am sure that The King's Speech and Black Swan would have more greatly impressed either pioneer as intriguing fictions and case studies. The Academy Award for Best Actor seems ineluctably headed for the speechmaker. The implied reality of a Hollywood fate remains as absurd as ever, and yet it is absolutely convincing in the case of Colin Firth - unlucky to miss out last February - that this is his time.

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