Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Independent Film Review: "The King's Speech" (2010), by Payman Akhlaghi

King's Speech (2010, Released 2011)
Directed by Tom Hooper
Music by Alexander Desplat, with original music by Beethoven, Mozart, et al
Cast includes: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Thimothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, et al.

I had avoided the film in its theatrical release, amid or because of the huge publicity surrounding it, followed by 12 Oscar nominations, winning 4, for Best Picture, Best Actor (Firth), Best Director, and Best Original Script (Seidler). I had avoided it, despite my admiration for the production team, including composer Alexander Desplat, most of whom I had long privately registered as consistently reliable in their art and craft. Not even an interesting interview I watched at the time convinced my doubts to vanish. But a few minutes into the DVD version of the film, I realized that fortunately, I couldn't have been any more wrong. To put it succinctly, here was a touching dramatic work, in a way, despite all odds, beginning from the true story behind it, to the carefully crafted script, to the sensible and sensitive ensemble performance, to the music, and to the gestallt of its cinematic experience.

"The King's Speech" benefits from an impressively well-written script, adapted from a book (sic; but not credited), based on a true story, which succeeds to tell a most intimate story against a royal backdrop and a world headed toward a war. It's the story of a would-be king afflicted with a severe case of stammering, a lowly foreigner self-appointed as "speech therapist", and a country in need of a sure voice to steer it through a most turbulent time. The author has succeeded in amplifying the individuals in the foreground against a larger than life background of royal abodes and etiquette, very much in the tradition of "Les Miserables". The film succeeds in large part due to lead actors' sensitivity to this very individual human element, most evidently in the case of Colin Firth, whose every gesture in the long shots, and every "feeling" in the close ups, not to mention his practiced stammering, has captured a royal figure without his clothes, not a small feat for anyone who's grown up in the same culture as the king's. The result is a marvelous display of human interactions within and beyond established stereotypes, a flowing "pas de duex" during which the protagonists learn to surpass their vividly predefined social boundaries, and form a personal frienship across established walls of class and socioeconomic status.

In my opinion, a most subtle and profound moment in the film happens right before the newly appointed King is striding in fear to deliver his much anticipated "war speech" over the "wireless". As he walks, Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall), fully aware of the King's handicap, yet ever so careful not to highlight it, joins him for a few steps, and shares with him "a family secret", that he too had suffered a physical speech handicap, yet he had learned to make it into an asset! What's being communicated here, in those few sentences, is of course the clear message that the man has the whole parliament, government, and the country, behind him, and that they all wish him to succeed. What's more, this is done in the most intrinsically humane and genuinely supportive way, devoid of the traditional diplomatic channels.

The music, either the original numbers by Desplat, or the selection of classical numbers by Mozart (Overture to Marriage of Figaro, excerpt from Clarinet Concerto), Beethoven (slow movement from Piano Concerto Number 5, and especially the moving second movement, the Allegro from the 7th Symphony), as well as the few popular numbers, all work well to the benefit of the picture. The cinematography and scenic design are masterful. One could, however, question the necessity of disproportionately off-centered framing of the subjects in the foreground, in several scenes, a clearly deliberate choice by the director, which at times does more than distract the viewer, notwithstanding the powerful impact of the device in communicating the instability and discomfort of the situations, and the initially awkward and continuously unconventional relationship of the protagonists.

© 2011, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

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