Film: Tom Hooper: The King’s Speech (2010)

How our better critical selves shouldn’t miss the bygone days of The Miramax-Produced Movie: Shakespeare in Love, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Gangs of New York. Never in American cinema, before or since, has so much concentrated sap and sincerity been injected into our theatrical intake, saturating our brains with high-glucose lies. Miramax got away with it because they lied about cute stuff (orphan children and candy) and niche history (Shakespeare and the Five Corners) instead of catastrophic social issues like disease, war, or famine, and we let them because the trade-off came in the form of confection: films we enjoyed consuming for their harmless sugar rush of Good Feelings or Easy Empathy (or Watered-Down Art, of the likes Scorsese’s been making ever since). Continuing to lament our shortage of taste and discrimination in these glorious times of Miley Cyrus, “American Idol”, and endless movie remakes seems terribly pointless in the face of popular momentum (and we are still getting our There Will be Bloods, Bob Woodward reportage, and Radiohead albums), but there remains in me a calling, like a body demanding nutrients, for richer, healthier art.

2010 was not a fulfilling year for Hollywood cinema, replete as it was with depressing remakes: The Wolfman, Alice in Wonderland, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood, The A-Team, The Karate Kid. Potentially wonderful films like The Killer Inside Me somehow failed to develop real depth, and adaptations like Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer, both by directors of formidable skill, collapsed in showy displays of empty style. We got a smattering of interesting but non-threatening films (Winter’s Bone, The Social Network, The Town), but other cultures had to give us Enter the Void, A Prophet, and Lebanon, and National Geographic released the most sophisticated documentary, Restrepo. Into that scene slipped the BBC-Miramax (now The Weinstein Company) lovechild, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, a soft and cuddly happy-weeper that hits all the proper notes, if none of the arresting ones. It’s got a lot of pretty shots in historical settings. Shakespeare quotations. Physiological torment. A loving woman. A best friend forged in the furnace of well-meaning stubbornness. Nazi villains. And a hefty performance by a familiar Brit who’s never shown so much leading-man gravity.

What’s not to love? The King’s Speech is a puppy of a film, bouncy and lovable and too immature to criticize. Colin Firth is quite good, insofar as imitating King George VI’s speech is acting and sudden outbursts of anger are expressive (this is not a criticism; he embodies the part well, but it’s half-formed for a film that wants to be historically significant but lacks the willingness to put aside its comparatively inane drama). David Seidler’s script – evidently based on his own stammering as a child, and built on scenes between the king, his wife the Queen Mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) at his side, and his adorably good-natured therapist (Geoffrey Rush), who’s willing to put up with every one of George’s tantrums because he knows precisely how Seidler will use them to launch their relationship to a more profound level of bourgeois trust – provides a slew of agreeable, simplistic one-liners and English dryness. Hooper throws his camera into the mix with apparent stylistic abandon, as BBC and HBO have been doing for a while now with TV docudramas like Into the Storm and Warm Springs. It’s a sloppy film language, full of ridiculous close-ups, wide-angle Steadicam moves, and off-kilter frames that draw attention to themselves without formal purpose beyond keeping you visually involved, and it further contributes to a growing sense, watching the film, that its whole design is a series of dangled carrots, promising future riches but denying our appetites anything but a range of sweets: some cheap SweetTarts, some dark Godiva, but sugar nonetheless. So a chocolate puppy, then – fine. I could get frustrated with its cynically inept coincidence of Nazi threat with the king’s sudden (and, really, sort of inexplicable) ability to speak, thus providing a “voice” for the (comically rapt) people of England listening to his ultimate speech – but this is, after all, basically a Miramax Movie; its pretenses aren’t worth getting angry over. This is no Slumdog Millionaire.

But nor are they worth lauding. I can understand The King’s Speech being an enjoyable experience – this is the first film ever made that produced simultaneous recommendations from both of my parents – and it seems asinine to criticize the enjoyment of a box of truffles. But good art shouldn’t be exclusively for the young or the pretentious; it exists to keep our brains active and our souls awake, both at the same time. You could watch The King’s Speech half-attentive and get all you need from it; you could half-listen and grasp all it understands about human nature. If I tread carefully now, it’s because the film is just not particularly bad – but I, for one, thirst for much more than it provides. I wish I weren’t, but I am disappointed in its shortcomings. It leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste of having been manufactured for my entertainment only, of parts that have worked in like-minded films before. I would have preferred a dramatically flimsier film of harder material, a less amusing film with more guts to examine a man who became king at a time of war, and physically couldn’t talk about it. What frustration there had to have been in him, what inarticulate self-hatred, and what sense of helplessness as a force of such indomitable ego began to unleash itself across Europe. The King’s Speech stops desperately short of seeing these things with clarity, limiting most of its running time to relatively superficial family relations and skimming lightly over historical dilemma in its last half hour. At what should have been the story’s dramatic apex – George’s speech as England goes to war with Germany – the film gives us not one, not two, but three thank-you’s from the king to his therapist – that being, of course, the greater of the scene’s dramas. It’s the safer, smaller, more easily digestible choice, and there’s no danger of leaving the theater disconcerted by cacophonous human dilemma.

It’s probably disingenuous to level criticism solely at The Weinstein Company for The King’s Speech. They’re distributing the film in America; they didn’t make it (what changes were made after acquisition, I certainly couldn’t say). Hell, Miramax in the 1990s and early 2000s acquired or made a swath of intelligent, challenging films like The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction, and City of God. The wiser observation might be that, whether a studio put it together or not, the film has been made with studious attention to tried-and-true expectations of what ought to sell (an historical drama about speech, for God’s sake): the sweeter an elixir, the better. Weinstein, the marketing geniuses, bought it up and ran with it. Everyone’s seeing it, recommending it, showering it with affection and awards. Movies and their makers can certainly benefit from conformity. I’m just less sure that we can. Why aren’t more of us really thirsty, dammit?

4 Responses to “Film: Tom Hooper: The King’s Speech (2010)”

  1. Lester Baker Says:

    An interesting review. You leave unanswered how you would incorparate into a movie your sentimenht” I would have preferred a dramatically flimsier film of harder material, a less amusing film with more guts to examine a man who became king at a time of war, and physically couldn’t talk about it. What frustration there had to have been in him, what inarticulate self-hatred, and what sense of helplessness as a force of such indomitable ego began to unleash itself across Europe. “

  2. Yup. I don’t know what that movie would be, but I feel myself drawn to that one instead.

    I could probably stand to make it even clearer that I don’t think this is a bad movie. It might just have been better. The fact that it’s been winning every award imaginable is a little annoying.

  3. Liked this review. I’m going to start using the term “chocolate puppy” to describe all movies like this.

    Surprised you lumped “Gangs of New York” in with those other films. Never saw it, so can’t say I disagree. Just surprised it would fall in that group.

    • Gangs has better intentions, but it’s neutered in the same way: all the real human complications have been reduced to sound byte fragments for easy digestion. Shame Scorsese’s generally so much better; it’s obvious he fought the Miramax castration system – but then, he was never much of an Epic Film-maker.

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