LYT vs. AFI Fest 2010: THE KING'S and I

Oscar prognosticators have been saying that the big battle this year is likely to be THE SOCIAL NETWORK versus THE KING’S SPEECH. Last night, I finally got a look at the latter, a true-story tale of an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who secretly coached then-Duke of York Prince Albert (Colin Firth) to get past his stammer and fear of public speaking. When Prince Albert became King George VI, this would be put to the ultimate test, as it was up to the new monarch to inspire his people with radio addresses.

King's Speech

Before I get to what I think of the film, however, I will note that it was preceded by a special tribute to Firth, Rush, and director Tom Hooper. Here’s how that when down:

Lights go low fairly promptly, at 7:43, and they stay dim till things start. This is good – forces people to sit the hell down.

Our host for the evening: Leonard Maltin! Big step up from David Poland last year, who began his Viggo Mortensen interview by mocking women who like Viggo, then proceeded to spoil the ending of the movie we were about to see. Maltin’s one bit of bragging is that he’s one up on all of us because he’s seen the movie already.

Also, he’s one up on us because he’s Leonard friggin’ Maltin, the most famous film critic in America who can still talk, and presumably a guy who actually still gets well-paid to do this.

We watch a reel of Colin Firth stuff – a lot of BRIDGET JONES, plus period costumes and wigs. Director Tom Hooper’s reel basically shows us THE DAMNED UNITED and the JOHN ADAMS miniseries.

Geoffrey Rush gets his own separate reel, because they didn’t know if he was going to show up. It’s scored to the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN soundtrack, but shows none of that: more de Sade and Shine.

All three men come onstage in black suits; Rush is the only one not wearing a tie, shirt unbuttoned. He says he first discovered the script when he received “a little brown package on my doorstep, like an orphan”…a relative of the writer lived in his neighborhood. It was written as a play, but “I could smell instantly that it was a film story to be told.”

Tom Hooper is half-English, half-Australian, so related to both main characters. His mother had been asked to attend a reading of the play (in England, where they lived) because they wanted token Aussies in the audience. She came home and told Tom it would be good material for him.

Tom says he originally wanted Geoffrey to be his John Adams; Geoffrey being attached to this script was a bonus. Colin Firth got the call for the King George role pretty quickly after that.

Leonard asks is it hard to play a well-known historical figure? Colin says George VI is remembered and loved, but not by anyone in his generation, so it’s more freeing to do someone like that than Winston Churchill, who’s “known to everybody, of every age, everywhere in the world.”

[Funny comment given that Churchill in this film, as played by Timothy “Wormtail” Spall, is a broad caricature, and the only purely comedic character in the whole thing]

“The whole speech therapy is something out of Tom Hooper’s fevered psyche,” says Colin, who sees at as a metaphor for the director’s dual national identities struggling with each other.

Leonard asks how they think Americans can connect to the material. Geoffrey: “I think the Americans might connect just on the level of therapy!” Tom suggests that the concept of talking back irreverently to the king is something Americans know well.

Colin says that in England, “we don’t go round thinking about the royal family all the time, except when something jolts” like the Queen Mother’s death. George VI didn’t want power, but with Hitler and Mussolini, was confronted with enemies who were maniacal for power.

Screenwriter David Seidler grew up with a speech impediment, and looked up to George VI as a role model, because if the king could get through it, he knew that so could he. Became friends with Valentine Logue, son of Lionel Logue, the speech therapist. Valentine had notes his father had taken about the sessions with the king; Seidler wrote to Buckingham Palace asking for permission to make a play about them, but the Queen Mother asked that it not be done in her lifetime, as the memories were too painful.

Tom: “David waited, little realizing the Queen Mum would live to be 186!”

So Helena Bonham Carter is playing the Queen Mother. That adds a bit of a new dimension to things.

Maltin wraps it up, not wanting to delay the movie too long. Good for him.

So…the film. It’s based on a play, and boy, does it show. Much of the action takes place in Logue’s office, built out of what could easily be leftover flats from Tim Burton’s SWEENEY TODD. It’s often funny, particularly whenever Firth lets loose with a string of highly unkingly profanities, and does a decent job of filling in the history of the unlikely events that brought Albert/George to the throne (“Too Germanic!” says Churchill of the name “Albert.”)

Old people are gonna love the shit out of this movie. It’s handsomely mounted, and has lots of talking, with Firth riding that speech impediment possibly all the way to the Kodak theater next year (both he and Rush are good, if not career-best good, and Michael Palin’s stammer in A FISH CALLED WANDA was both funnier and more believable). It also gets in some little digs at the notion of politician as celebrity – the senior king (Michael Gambon) complains that thanks to radio, he now has to be an actor (paging Ronald Reagan!). This passes for profundity, though it isn’t really.

And despite the way the previews are selling it, it’s not actually all that comedic; there’s a sense of sentimentality that pervades every emotional note. I think it would be more effective on the stage, sans score and with only the implications of greater world events in the background.

But my cynicism here may be in part that we as American have just gone through eight years of war with a leader who could barely keep his syntax straight, nor could be bothered to improve in that area.  Seems hard to imagine that a powerless monarch’s words were so crucial that they practically won the war.

If the expected Oscar fight goes down, color me Team Fincher all the way.

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