Sunday, January 02, 2011

The King's Speech

We did go to see "The King's Speech" after all, at a nice theater out in the suburbs. The theater was about half full, which is a good sign, though Dean did notice that a lot of the audience was older - even older than us! It's the sort of story that I suppose would appeal to older people with a love for and interest in the Royal Family; I was more interested in it as a story of overcoming a handicap.

Colin Firth has been a favourite of mine ever since "Pride and Prejudice". He's STILL the definitive Darcy, and I don't even know why filmmakers keep trying to remake that story - I don't think there will ever be a better version than the 1995 miniseries. (A female journalist once wrote, "Like all women, I know exactly what Elizabeth Bennet looks like; she looks just like me!" ) Anyway, I suppose he's done a fair number of movies in the meantime, but I think this must be the best thing he's done since P&P, and now everyone's talking about Oscar nominations and the like. I hope he does win - the sheer voice work on this movie alone is remarkable. As the Duke of York, he has a rather high-pitched, strangulated voice that makes you feel the character's exhaustion every time he tries to choke out a normal line of speech. He also does a good job portraying someone who's ALREADY isolated and cut off from ordinary life - it's not just that as a Prince he doesn't carry money on him (the running theme of the shilling he owes his voice teacher is quite amusing). He knows he doesn't know ordinary people or have any idea how they live, but the speech impediment makes it all but impossible for him to begin to break out of his tiny family-sized zone of safety. As Logue says to him at one point "What are friends for?" "I wouldn't know," answers Bertie bleakly.

There's one part that I really liked - the movie managed to take a cliched moment and make it surprising. When during their first meeting Logue 'tricks' the Prince into speaking fluently - he reads Hamlet's soliloquy while wearing earphones playing Beethoven, so he can't hear his own voice - Logue records the speech on a record and gives it to Bertie to take home as a souvenir. Months later, Bertie is listening to a jazz record at home and gets up, irritated, to change the record. I expected it to be that old chestnut: He's forgotten all about the record, and picks it off the pile and puts it on, expecting to hear music, and instead is astounded to hear his own voice speaking fluently! But no - the record plays, the speech fills the room, and we see Bertie sitting on the couch, listening intently. Then his wife comes into the room, and we see the look of astonishment on HER face. She didn't know all this time, but he did. He's listened to that record over and over, and it's familiar to him. It just takes him this long to get up the courage to go back to the teacher to try again.

Geoffrey Rush is excellent as Lionel Logue, the Prince's speech therapist, though I found his resemblance to Michael Hordern rather distracting. Bertie has a terrible moment when he discovers that Logue isn't a doctor after all (not that he ever claimed or pretended to be), but is rather an unsuccessful actor. I remembered later that George V at one point tells Bertie that the Royal Family have fallen to the level of the dregs of society, actors, which would explain why he feels so humiliated and crushed to find that his admired teacher is a member of this vile brood. Actually, it makes perfect sense that an actor would be very capable of teaching speech. Claude Rains started life with an atrocious stutter, as well as an almost indecipherable Cockney accent. When working as a gopher at a theatre, an actor took an interest in him and gave him books and techniques to teach him how to overcome his speech defects, which he did through incessant practice. He was really self-taught. Then he went to the trenches in WWI and was injured and gassed; he lost the sight in one eye, and what was worse, the gas paralysed his vocal cords and he couldn't speak! It must have been an incredible blow, but Rains relearned how to speak again - in fact, the gas damage was responsible for that very characteristic slight roughness in his voice ever after.

I've hardly any complaints about this movie, except that the actor playing Churchill didn't LOOK much like him. But he had the voice, and that's what really matters. Edward VIII certainly was a caddish loser, and they portrayed Mrs. Simpson as a real torn-down piece from Baltimore. Not that she was ever beautiful, but it sure was hard to see why David was so fascinated by her (must have been those 'techniques' she picked up in Shanghai after all) - they portrayed her as a brassy, pushy American cocktail-swiller. Probably pretty accurate.

The Royal Family comes across as quite dysfunctional - bullying males and frigid females, with Bertie trying very hard to create a different kind of atmosphere in his own home. It's always interesting to compare what people thought was important in those days with what prevails today. The typical reaction to Edward VIII Abdication Crisis seems to be "Oh, what a lot of fuss about nothing! Look, today the Prince of Wales can marry a divorcee and see? The sky doesn't fall. Nobody cares any more." I find it all a bit sad. I think of all the sacrifice people went through in the 30s, and don't think they're foolish - I feel embarrassed that their grandchildren just gave up the fight so completely and so quickly. I mean, we're not talking about the days of Henry VIII here, this is just 2 generations ago, and now who takes seriously the idea of sacrificing anything because of duty to God or to the people? Nobody. The present Queen will be the last who does.


Anonymous Pageantmaster said...

If this film is anything like as well constructed as your review it will be well worth seeing, but over here in the UK we will have to wait until it is released on 7th January to find out.

I do have rather a soft spot for Edward VIII though, he was indeed an awful rake in his younger days, but as king he rose to the occasion and was rather good, particularly in driving good relations with France and the Entente Cordial.

I agree with you about sacrifice and duty - these have gone out as Christianity has not been taught to a new generation, but these things tend to come round again, as the results come in; much as the 60's freedoms were reevaluated as perhaps not so wonderful after all.

Many thanks for this.

7:41 am  
Anonymous Pageantmaster said...

Sorry, I was talking about Edward VII, while you wrote about Edward VIII. Interestingly, if you go into many golf clubs here you are likely to find a portrait of Edward VIII. He was very popular as Prince of Wales, but did not fulfil his potential; many remembered him with affection as a good king who never was.

7:46 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

How odd that the film has been released abroad before being released in the UK, since it is a British film. It sure had a low-key release; I never even saw an ad for it until I was watching a Christmas 'Mayday' marathon in French on one of our French-Canadian stations, and they were showing ads for the dubbed version ('Le Discours du roi') which got me interested in seeing if it was playing in town. It's climbing up in popularity, and I suppose it's all due to positive reviews and chatter; sure not a splashy advertising campaign.

Edward VII is an under-appreciated king, I think. Maybe it's because his colourful private life dominates the picture, but he was very astute and had a clear head when it came to European politics. It's probably a shame he had to wait so long to come to the throne; he would be seen as a more important figure now if he weren't overshadowed by his mother's interminable reign, and his own wasn't so brief.

It's been years since I read an EXHAUSTIVE book about Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson, but he seems to be one of those figures who diminishes the more you know about him. What did the public of the time really know about him? Americans complain about the way the press spins things for Obama, and JFK also got very protective treatment, but it was nothing compared to the way the British press airbrushed news about the Royal Family back in those days. One of the problems about the Abdication Crisis was that the coverup was so efficient, when things finally got desperate, there was the problem of how to break the news of this crisis to a British public that had almost no idea of what had been going on. They had a new king for a year and suddenly he's gone? What on earth happened? In a more suspicious age, people would have been angry at the PRESS for such conspiratorial doings, but that doesn't seem to have happened.

9:52 am  
Anonymous Pageantmaster said...

Many thanks Dr Mabuse - we have got used to coming at the end to the film distributors' list, whether we made the film or not, but as you say it is strange. The lack of publicity is probably a good sign, as to get through that a film has to be outstanding, signs are this is what is happening, as happened with Chariots of Fire and Apocalypse Now in similar circumstances.

One wonders whether had he lived, as the senior European Royal, Edward VII would have been able to sway his chippy nephew William from waging war in 1914, but perhaps it would have happened anyway. I don't think Edward had a wasted waiting period to become king. Part of being such a man of a world and so partial to social life was that he had by the time he came to the throne, met and got to know well the world's leaders and the situations in their countries perhaps better than his mother with her red box reports from the Foreign and Colonial Offices.

Edward VIII seems to have suffered from the weaknesses of his strange upbringing. The counterside of that duty/sacrifice attitude was there was a fear of demonstrative emotion towards children and there was little warmth in the upbringing of any children of that generation. As for whether he would have been a good king in reality, there are the question marks over his and the Duchess of Windsor's middle European connections, so who knows. He does seem to have been in some ways a weak man.

George VI is interesting; perhaps because it is so recent, there is really very little written or dramatised about him, or his remarkable and determined wife. I didn't even know that he had speech lesssons, although his stutter was common knowledge. The media control again I expect.

Fortunately in the days of the internet, such control is a thing of the past hopefully.

Thanks for the kind welcome to your blog although I have read and enjoyed it intermittently for the last few years, and sometimes rolled around in laughter at your witty writing.

God bless.

3:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the turning points of history was when that "Fainthearted & Degenerate King" abdicated so that a great and noble king might arise. Sleep well George VI & Queen Elizabeth - the two of you never faltered in your duty.

6:21 pm  
Anonymous Kelso said...

The above comment about "Fainthearted...etc" is mine. I did not mean to publish it anonymously. "The Times regrets the error".

6:23 pm  

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