Given the grimness of top Oscar contenders like The Social Network and Black Swan, it looks like Hollywood had to have its rousing good cheer imported from England (again) this year. The King's Speech is a crowd pleasing tale of triumph in the face of adversity, a more reserved and much wealthier Slumdog Millionaire if you will. And since most of us are not and will probably never be members of the royal family, it's just as exotic.
Well, The King's Speech doesn't exactly win its audience goodwill through victory dances, and the adversity takes the form of a speech impediment instead of crushing poverty and treacherous sewage pits. Colin Firth plays Albert, who starts the movie as the Duke of York and ends up as King George VI, and who has to struggle with a complicated family dynamic and a debilitating stutter. His brother Edward is shirking his responsibilities as the king of England, preferring to cavort with the twice divorced Wallis Simpson (who apparently "acquired certain skills at an establishment in Shanghai") rather than preserve the honor of the royal family. It looks like Albert might have to replace him but the poor fellow can hardly utter more than a few words before his mouth clenches up, making him look like he's about to choke on his tongue. And while this wouldn't have been a problem in the days when the king was nothing more than a figurehead, King George's rise to power just happens to coincide with the advent of radio, which, unlike certain modern technological innovations, is a genuine connecting force. He's expected to act as a voice for the people.
Some have claimed The King's Speech as a pro-royalist movie, and there's some truth to that in that it's about a king and so much importance is given to how the king meets his challenge. The fate of nations seems to rest on the question of whether one man will or will not be capable of speaking a complete sentence. But if The King's Speech has a good amount of respect for the crown, and has to serve its story by building it up, it's not a movie that's subservient to the monarchy. For one, Albert knows that his position is essentially meaningless ("can I declare war? Levy a tax? Form a government? No!"). And then there's the less than flattering look into the workings of the royal family. As Albert's speech therapist says, no one is born with a stutter; Albert's inability to function clearly comes from the dysfunctional nature of an often quite troubled family. Most important, however, is the fact that this speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), is the real heart of the movie, or at least a fierce competitor for that title. An Australian (reason for abuse in the always class conscious Britain) and a failed Shakespearean actor, he somehow manages to make the king his equal. This happens early on as a formality-- Logue starts his first session by telling "his Royal Highness" that he will henceforth be known only as "Bertie"--but he also knows that the total ease and trust required for treatment won't come easily.
There's great fun in seeing Albert abandon his restrictions and boundaries and gradually let Logue and the audience in. His breakthroughs can be comic, as in a scene where the king utters this eloquent discourse: "Fuck, fuck, fuck, and fuck! Fuck, fuck, and bugger. Bugger, bugger, buggerty (etc...)". Others, where George plumbs his past for memories that by anyone's standards are easier left unsaid, are incredibly moving. Indeed, the broader historical context can often seem insignificant next to these very personal moments, which are where the film really comes alive. A wartime speech is a wartime speech, and the effects of proper diction are undoubtably secondary to those of bombs, bullets, or decisions made by actual politicians. But this movie is about Bertie and Logue, and unlike this year's filmic version of Mark Zuckerberg who was blank and impenetrable and somehow embodied his generation (and their disconnect), these two really only speak for themselves. And after all, who doesn't like to celebrate individual triumph? Jai Ho.
If I bring up Slumdog Millionaire, it's not just because the two share similar elements in their stories (especially in their climactic moments) or have remarkably similar box-office trajectories, but because both of them seem to have pulled off the same trick concerning the Academy Awards, coming out of nowhere to become surprise front-runners. Yes, against all odds, this little movie that barely anyone was talking about a few months back has edged out The Social Network as the favorite (see Roger Ebert's predictions or articles like "Why The King's Speech will win Oscars" in Vanity Fair), racking up 12 nominations in the process. Deserved? Nay, says I. And I'm still placing my bets on The Social Network as the big prizewinner. But before we get to that here's a quick rundown of the competition in the top categories.
Best Actor- Javier Bardem for Biutiful, Jeff Bridges for True Grit, Colin Firth for The King's Speech, James Franco for 127 Hours, and Jesse Eisenberg for The Social Network. Both Firth and Bridges were on the list last year, and while Bridges got the award then for his performance in Crazy Heart, Firth is the front runner here for his portrayal of a very complicated man in The King's Speech. He did a great job, giving us someone to identify with while serving up botched phrases and angry outbursts. I've only seen three of the five nominees (missing out on True Grit and 127 Hours) but my favorite is still Bardem, who carries Biutiful, and a whole lot of suffering, on his shoulders. A very good year for great performances.
Best Actress- Anette Bening for The Kids are All Right, Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole, Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone, Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine, and Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Again, I've seen 3 of the 5. Natalie Portman is the clear favorite here, and she really did transform herself for the role, but her character is just too passive for me to support hers as the best female performance of the year. I prefer Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone.
Best Supporting Actor- One category where The King's Speech deserves to win. Jeremy Renner is great in The Town and John Hawkes is excellent in Winter's Bone, but Geoffrey Rush really has a lead role in The King's Speech and he does a heck of a lot with it.
Best Supporting Actress- Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Elizabeth, King George's wife, in The King's Speech has a nomination. She's good, but isn't given nearly as much as her male counterparts. Hers is the only performance I've seen. Apparently, the 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) is the favorite, much to the chagrin of Melissa Leo (The Fighter) who caused a bit of a stir when she paid for her own Oscar campaign and talked about ageism towards older actresses in Hollywood. I have no doubt that she does an excellent job, but Steinfeld's case is another where a lead is put in the supporting category to assure a win.
Cinematography- Often goes to the Best Picture winner, but is it time for Deakins to win? He's the best cinematographer working today and has been nominated 9 times but never won. Now might be his time to take home a trophy for True Grit.
Documentary- Exit through the Gift Shop! I don't really know what the favorite is (probably something that invokes more of an emotional response), but I doubt there's a better documentary that came out this year. Inside Job is well researched and well-made and capable of inducing a fair amount of anger but otherwise unremarkable.
Writing (Adapted)- True Grit, Winter's Bone, Toy Story 3, Social Network, 127 Hours. Aaron Sorkin will and should take it for The Social Network. I actually had some problems with his script--it's sometimes overwritten and has too many obvious dramatic punchlines (the ending for example)--but it's still brilliant. And his script is the one that stands out the most as the work of a writer (instead of a director) who gives his own voice to a film. All the others were at least co-written by the film's director.
Writing (Original)- Nolan's Inception was pretty impressive, but David Siedler will most likely take this category for The King's Speech. It's really his project; he had a stammer when he was young (due in part to the trauma of the war) and King George's story moved him deeply. Lionel Logue would be less than a historical footnote if Siedler hadn't done all the original research on him. It's a fine script indeed-- witty, nuanced, and detailed.
Directing- This category can seem a little unnecessary in that the Best Picture award usually deserves to go to the director anyways. Maybe the writer sometimes. Producers? Not so much. There was some scandal here in that Christopher Nolan didn't make the list for Inception. He really is the only person responsible for that movie and its success, and he would probably have been my first choice. He certainly had to do a lot more directing than the rest of them to mount such a big movie. Surprisingly, Tom Hooper won the Director's Guild Award for The King's Speech (almost always a predictor for the Oscar winner). I'm likely to give him the least credit out of any of them; as I've stated before, that movie is Siedler's passion project. My pick is David Fincher, perfectionist extraordinaire, for The Social Network.
Foreign Language Film- This category is notoriously unpredictable. The Secret in their Eyes took out both A Prophet and The White Ribbon last year, and Waltz with Bashir lost to Departures the year before that. Oftentimes, the academy picks the movie that most closely resembles one of their own and it's usually a safe bet to go for the pathos instead of the logos. This year there are some unfortunate omissions from the top 5 nominees including France's Des hommes et des dieux (very surprising, since I thought it would be the eventual winner) and Thailand's Long Boonmee raleuk chat (not so surprising...it's too far out there). The most surprising inclusion (for me) is Algeria's Hors-la-loi. The film, which is really more French than Algerian (each country can only submit one movie) got mediocre reviews in France and looks excessively mediocre; from what I can tell it's a wannabe Hollywood gangster movie. The trailers and reviews kept me away from the theaters for that one, but I guess I'll have to head back to find out if my judgement is just. Other nominees include Mexico's (more like Spain's) Biutiful, Denmark's In a Better World, Canada's Incendies, and Greece's Dogtooth. Some say Incendies could win, and having seen it, I say there's a chance that it will, although it shouldn't.
Best Picture- Winter's Bone, The Fighter, True Grit, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, The Kids are all Right, Inception, The King's Speech, Black Swan. Seven down, three to go. This is a pretty good year for movies--each of the top ten is a strong contender, and there is no The Blind Side in the running. I will say that there are only two important movies in there, ones that leave an indelible mark and are able to say something about the society that produced them. The Social Network is historically significant and was able to capture something that defines whatever era we're in right now. Inception is a landmark in big-budget complexity and narrative showiness. I doubt students of film history are really going to do much looking back at Toy Story 3 or Black Swan. The King's Speech could win the best picture, but it's too traditional to really stand out for posterity. Winter's Bone is now my number two favorite movie in the running (ahead of Inception) but most people are saying that it's lucky just to be considered (Blue Valentine or The Town could have nabbed its place instead).
The Social Network will win.