“Do you know any jokes?” asks a speech pathologist of his newest patient, a stammerer. “Timing is not my strong suit,” the uptight patient replies. It’s the early 1930s and the Australian pathologist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), known for his unorthodox techniques, is working out of pleasantly shabby chambers in London’s Harley Street. The patient is King George VI (Colin Firth) who, in 1936, was thrust into power when his older brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicated the British throne in favour of a more relaxed life in Paris with the divorcee Wallis Simpson.
King George’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), sought out Logue on behalf of her reluctant husband. Long ago, Elizabeth had refused George’s marriage proposal, on the grounds he was prince and she had an aversion to public life. “But then I thought: he stammers so beautifully – they’ll leave us alone.” It was not to be. When Edward fled the coop, George’s worst fears were realised. He could no longer be the backup speaker, the tongue-tied little brother; rather, as the nation’s symbolic head, he was expected to be its reassuring voice.
Thus the scene is set in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (in national release 26 December), a delightful, funny, warm and intelligent biopic about stage fright, grace and determination. In the lead-up to World War II, where the unlikely King’s melancholy duty will be to notify the British public of the state of war with Germany, the irreverent Australian’s job is to help this king learn to speak out loud. It’s a great ‘ticking clock’ device and, in some ways, the film has all the structural characteristics of a classic thriller. What we’re really being treated to, though, is a beguiling character-study played out by masterful actors.
Pearce’s Edward is a nuanced mix of fop and Biggles. Bonham Carter is perfect as a solicitous, sympathetic wife internalising her referred anxiety. Timothy Spall makes of Winston Churchill a plausibly quirky human being rather than ‘cinema Churchill’. Michael Gambon’s King George V is a small but perfect study of a grand presence from a bygone era; his sons are both too modern and too human for his liking. “Who will stand between us, the jackboots, and the proletarian abyss?” he asks George, touching on the increasing likelihood that Edward’s foolishness may lead to abdication. “You?” We feel the sting, as though we too know something of the stutters.
Rush and Firth chart brilliantly the film’s improbable main relationship. The King’s social awkwardness is almost physically painful at first; Rush insists on calling him “Bertie”, much to Bertie’s annoyance. The King, in addressing his pathologist, manages to make the apparently excruciating journey from ‘Doctor’ to ‘Logue’, and eventually to ‘Lionel’. Rush, who studied at the Jacques Lecoq school of mime, movement and theatre in Paris in the ’70s, puts his training to good use here, and the montage of loosening-up scenes between the two men is a brief but beautiful gem of physical comedy. “Is the nation ready for two minutes of radio silence?” jokes the soon-to-be King before his coronation speech, a line that somehow brought to mind for me ‘Stutter Rap’ by the one-hit-wonder band Morris Minor & the Majors: “And it breaks my heart that we’re not on the chart / ’cause the record’s nearly over when the vocals start.”
For all that it centres, metaphorically, on speech and power, on silence and impotence, The King’s Speech shows just how much mere – sheer – talk can work, cinematically, in the hands of very fine actors. In one scene, Firth and Rush talk, a good deal of it simply exposition, for what must be five or ten minutes, and the conversation is both intense and captivating. The King’s fear is that he’ll come to be known as “Mad King George the Stammerer” (akin to the fate of King George III). As the film tells it, Logue’s particular humanity lies in his capacity for non-judgemental compassion. Rush’s defining quality as an actor, an impish emotional transparency imbued with both depth and lightness, is perfect for the role.
The King, meanwhile – a private man assailed by very public fears – must make himself available to the teacher’s compassion. Firth’s brilliance is that, behind the aristocratic uptightness he so ably and so regularly portrays (ever since his Mr Darcy in BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) he never fails to leave ajar the door to his vulnerability. In one scene, the new Royal Family watch newsreel footage of George’s Coronation; afterwards, the newsreel continues on to other matters of the day, and we see Hitler in full rant. The King studies the dictator’s body language, his manic self-confidence. We think of Yeats: “the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”. “What’s he saying?” asks daughter Elizabeth, the future queen. “I don’t know,” replies her unsettled father, “but he seems to be saying it rather well.”
The King’s Speech is a genuinely stirring, feel-good film, and it will be a surprise if it doesn’t win an Oscar or two. There’s nothing particularly unpredictable or out-of-the-box about it, but it is rounded, rich and, in the end, resolved, without ever resorting to the Hollywood trope of complete personality transformation. “I’m a thistle sifter,” says the King in one of his speech exercises. “I have a sieve of sifted thistles and a sieve of unsifted thistles, because I’m a thistle sifter.” Such tricks will help counter his tics, of course, but they’re not the heart of the story. It’s Logue’s love of language and play that imbue the film with its true emotional shape as a moving, funny period bromance.
In Derek Cianfrance’s dark, elegiac Blue Valentine (also in national release 26 December), the gifted actors Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling play married couple Cindy and Dean, parents to four-year-old Frankie. At the film’s opening, the marriage is in a terrible stasis. Dean is a house painter; from the beginning, the film is speckled with a forlorn melancholia, just as his clothes and limbs are flecked with paint. He’s happy enough plodding along but Cindy, stressed, harried, preparing for work – she’s an ultrasound technician in a medical centre – feels she’s looking after two children rather than one. It’s not that she yearns for something greater than what she’s got, it’s just that she’d like Dean to do some, any, yearning. She’d like to see him in a job where he doesn’t start drinking at eight o’clock as a way of making sure he gets there. When she raises this, Dean’s reply is: “I have a job where I can start drinking at eight o’clock – what a luxury.”
How did they get to this place? The film splits itself in two in order to tell us. But it’s not about a process. Rather, what begins as a flashback device turns into a looping narrative, and Blue Valentine interweaves two epochs of the relationship: the couple’s falling in love and, four or five years later, the disintegration of the marriage. The story doesn’t concern itself with any moment in between. In the end, this simplicity is a strength.
The centrepiece of the film, the fulcrum on which it swings between spring and winter, is a gruelling night the couple spend in a cheap motel in a kind of last-ditch effort to save the marriage. It’s a tawdry theme motel; Dean chooses for them the “Future Room” over “Cupid’s Cove”. They get drunk. Cindy doesn’t want to be there. Dean thinks fucking will make everything better. They talk. They argue. “Why don’t you do something?” she asks him. “Tell me what to do,” Dean answers. “Tell me how I should be.”
She says to him – indicating her stomach, her body, her being, the void – “There is nothing here for you.” In the pause before his reply, Gosling gives us all Dean’s fear and dread. “Don’t say things you can’t take back,” he says, softly. The sexual interplay, when it comes, is raw; riveting and appalling, the lovemaking is a disaster. “Don’t give me this shit,” moans Dean. “This fucking ‘You can have my body’ bullshit.”
Blue Valentine is a viscerally distressing film. Williams and Gosling give brave performances with the dark material, hearkening back to Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Blake Edwards’ confronting Days of Wine and Roses (1962). Even when lines are fluffed or clearly semi-improvised, as in the fighting and lovemaking scenes, the two actors manage to make them glow with sorrowful intensity. The film has one or two aimless moments and makes one or two false musical choices, but it feels like that unusual thing: a largely successful American take on a gritty Ken Loach-style drama.
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