Stuttering – or stammering, as it’s more politely or perhaps more Britishly referred to in The King’s Speech – is a uniquely cruel affliction. In public, people initially watch the speaker as if he or she is everyone else, then ruefully turn away – and wait, and wait, for the sentences to finish. In private, the thoughtless or malicious imitate, always with an undertone of disgust as if the speaker could Talk Normal if he or she would just try. Add to that its roots in emotional trauma of some sort and you have a condition that absolutely no one wants, and that will arouse the compassion in even a Hollywood mogul’s heart.
Of course, that’s not why the Weinsteins picked the script, which began life as a potential play (it feels like an adaptation of one on screen as well, not necessarily a bad thing). We all know they don’t have hearts. They picked it because, with Geoffrey Rush and Derek Jacobi attached early on, it was the surest bet in town to get tons of nominations and at least a couple of statues, and meanwhile they’d have a very safe and completely uncontroversial moral to their story (being mean is bad, being brave is good). Why, it’s this year’s Shakespeare in Love, another movie with lots of accents, high production values without any nasty explosions, and tasteful, tasteful, tasteful all the way to the red carpet.
This, my friends, is an even more cynical movie than anything you’ve seen so far this year, which is saying something. And because the Weinsteins are very, very good at this sort of thing, it’s completely entertaining, with a better-written screenplay than either the Facebook movie or the Bird Show, outstanding performances across the boards, and an underdog story that has you cheering for yet another Royal. After all, Hollywood assures us at least once a year that, really, monarchies aren’t so bad, just comprised of quirky, repressed families who live in ridiculous luxury thanks to taxpayers who probably would prefer that their money went elsewhere. (It’s the one aspect in which I can proudly call myself a republican.)
I will not quibble that it’s absolutely a treat to see pros like Colin Firth, Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter get to do their thing with a literate if completely predictable script. Firth’s face is a study in naked pain at an awkwardness that an actor this naturally graceful can’t have possibly experienced personally. Rush relishes this role in a way that only a fine actor stuck playing evil villains can. With no scenery to chew, his eyes express a range of quiet emotions and you remember that restraint is a rare and glorious quality in performance. And Bonham Carter shows again that she can do pretty much anything; few actresses are so at ease in their skin that they can swing from her broken doll ferocity in Fight Club to her Duchess of York, played as a yummy, never-too-sweet dumpling.
Even the smaller roles are flawlessly executed. Guy Pearce, who I think is one of the best and most underappreciated actors working, plays Edward, the man who would be king but for Wallis, as a guy with zero capacity for gratitude and humility, and who will never suffer a single consequence in his entire life. The great Michael Gambon makes a formidable George V, terrifying and eloquent. As Rush’s wife, Jennifer Ehle is lovely, and I expect we’ll see more of her in mainstream U.S. movies. A long list of children who I don’t have the energy to type are delightful and never cloying.
Showcasing actors is, of course, the purpose of a movie like this, and it must be pleasant to not simply be a pawn in the service of CGI and actually be able to create a character and speak literate lines. It’s very old-fashioned, like Somerset Maugham’s plays, which had clever moments, some very nice exchanges, and room for actors to pretend to be someone else on stage – and I can’t, for the life of me, remember a single plot of any of them.
A movie like this absolutely wouldn’t get made or seen if it weren’t to get Oscars, and it will deliver, with at the very least one for Firth. Hopefully, it won’t win much else because then we’ll have to hear how Brave Bob and Harvey are in the face of making “small” movies. In fact, I don’t think it will do much other than to get the obvious art direction and costume awards, something even the recipients acknowledge is ridiculous (period movies are much easier to design than contemporary ones). I’d love Bonham Carter to win something after years of great work, but it will be hard to stop Hailie Steinfield this year, and Rush already has a statue and will probably not be able to top Christian Bale this year.
It’s a comfy entertainment, preaching to an aging choir; when I looked around the theater, I saw a handful of people under 40, and certainly, I wasn’t one of them. If you want to convince a younger audience that movies matter – and you have to if you want to inspire anyone to make better ones – this ain’t it. On the other hand, if your idea of a fine time is a cup of mint tea followed by a nap – and I will admit that there are times when that sounds like a pretty fun evening to me – this one’s for you.