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The King’s Speech (2010)

WARNING: SP-SP-SPOILERS

When I first saw a trailer for “The King Speech” (American trailer, not international), I was almost moved to tears. I thought, “Colin Firth seems amazing. Geoffrey Rush looks like he’s having a ball.” Then I thought, “Except it feels like I’ve seen the entire movie now but for the last 10 minutes. And I can guess those.” (Psst: The speech goes well.)

And?

And Colin Firth is amazing, Geoffrey Rush seems like he’s having a ball, and the entirety of the movie is in the trailer except for the last 10 minutes. And you can guess those.

Once upon a time, trailers merely hinted at what a movie might be. It gave away a sense of the film, its genre, certainly, as well as first-act particulars. By the 1990s, it felt like the trailers were giving away second-act particulars as well. Now we get the whole bloody thing: first, second, and third act, all tied up in a neat, two-minute package. For a sequel-mad culture, which only wants to see what it’s already seen, this makes sense. In this way, trailers become a kind of first movie while the actual movie becomes a kind of sequel. Audiences are never forced to deal with the unfamiliar; they go away comforted. As for those of us who still want to be surprised by story? We’re fucked.

(Aside: Among the differences between the international and American trailers, the one I find most amusing is the moment where Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter), explains to unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) why her husband can’t change jobs. International version: “And what if my husband were the Duke of York?” American version: “And what if my husband were [cut] the King?” Yep. We smart.)

The movie opens in 1925 as the Duke of York (Firth), son of King George V (Michael Gambon), and second-in-line to the throne after the Prince of Wales (Guy Pearce), attempts to give a speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. It goes poorly. Poor man can barely get a word out. Some in the audience look annoyed, some amused (these are the bad people), while his wife looks on with a pity (she’s good). Yet isn’t pity as awful a reaction as the others? Who wants pity?

Traditional speech therapists do nothing for him, and, as a last resort, under a pseudonym, his wife seeks out Logue. His office is in a dingy basement, he’s not much for formalities (he has no secretary), and he greets the Duchess of York with a handshake after flushing the toilet.

Informality is key to his therapy. He insists on calling the Duke “Bertie” (as the royal family does) and being addressed as “Lionel.” These early scenes—the clash between an uptight, stammering royal and an iconoclastic, unlettered therapist—are the best in the film. We get one good line after another from screenwriter David Seidler: My favorite exchange:

Bertie starts to light a cigarette from a silver case.
Lionel: Please don’t do that.
Bertie: I’m sorry?
Lionel: I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you.
Bertie: My physicians say it relaxes the throat.
Lionel: They’re idiots.
Bertie: They’ve all been knighted.
Lionel: Makes it official then.

What Bertie needs, of course, is not just speech therapy but therapy. As a child he was mistreated by a nanny, who favored his older brother. He was made to wear braces on his legs and forced to correct a natural left-handedness. Supposedly this last is a common cause (was a common cause?) for stutterers.

Firth does an amazing job making us care about this man born to privilege. We get a sense of how trapped he is by circumstances. He is, in fact, doubly trapped: by his role, which he can never escape, and by his speech impediment, which won’t let him carry out that role.

He’s not wholly a victim, thank God. He lashes out, often, but even in that lashing out we maintain sympathy. We see the correlation. What we don’t see, and what would’ve been interesting to see, is more of his life outside his attempt to correct the stammer. Yes, his father was impatient and demanding; yes, his older brother was dashing, slightly mad (for Wallis Simpson) and cruel to Bertie when he needed to be. Yes, his wife was supportive, and, yes, his children, Elizabeth and Margaret, were adorable, as was he when he stammered through a children’s story for them. But I still don’t have a sense of what it feels like to be a royal. The dailiness of it. You wake up and ... what? Who is there for you? What is the schedule like? How much of your time is your own? Any of it? All of it? Do you get to go to the bathroom by yourself?

Instead we get a relationship movie, along with the starts and stops typical of relationship movies. At one point, Lionel, the commoner, oversteps his bounds and they break up; at another, Bertie, the royal, discovers Lionel isn’t properly credentialed and they nearly break up. Etc.

Ultimately it’s Lionel’s job to not only correct Bertie’s stammer but his squashed ego: his belief that he doesn’t deserve his position. In this he is the same as any pitching coach from Little League to the Majors. He has to make his charge believe he belongs where he is.

This very personal story is set against a backdrop of love and war. The “love” (and the movie would definitely put the quote marks there) is Edward’s for Wallis Simpson’s, which leads to his abdication, and the coronation, in 1936, of a reluctant Bertie as King of England. The war, meanwhile, is Hitler’s, and then all of ours. In September 1939 it’s up to Bertie, suddenly, to rally the country. But there’s the stammer. “The nation believes that when I speak I speak for them,” he says. “But I can’t speak.” That’s the 10 minutes the trailer didn’t reveal: how the titular speech goes.

And?

And he blows it. His stammer reflects on a nation nervous about war, which plunges the Brits into depression and makes them easy pickings for the Nazis, who roll over the country and the world, ending the idea of democracy and freedom forever. Heil Hitler.

Kidding.

“The King’s Speech” is a smart movie that’s fun to watch. I expect Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Firth, Rush, and Seidler. I was moved by the montage of the British people listening to the speech, all ears turned, all with a shared purpose. Other than that, there’s not much to say. It’s all in the trailer.

—January 3, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard