Saturday, January 15, 2011


If there is one film that is likely to have universal appeal this awards season, it's "The King's Speech" (10), a stirring depiction of the struggles of King George VI (the current Queen Elizabeth's father) to overcome a stutter so that he can assume the public persona demanded of him. It is directed by Tom Hooper, whose brilliant cable series "John Adams" was one of the richest treatments of history I have ever seen on film. As with that series, in "The King's Speech" history becomes intimate, personal, immediate, and relevant; we find ourselves identifying with people (a British monarch and his wife) whose lives don't remotely resemble the lives of most of the audience.

It was news to me that King George (who took the throne when his brother abdicated to marry a twice-divorced American in the 1930s) struggled his whole life with a crippling stutter--crippling because, as a member of the royal family during the early years of radio, when broadcasts were mostly done live with no editing, he could not escape the nightmare of public speaking. And for an otherwise quite capable military man, a speech disability was particularly shameful and inexplicable; surely his sheer force of will should have been sufficient to overcome it, or so it was thought.

The screenwriter, David Seidler, himself a stutterer, found inspiration from King George's story as a child and for years wanted to turn that story into a film. He actually asked the Queen Mother (the king's wife Elizabeth, who lived for decades after his death) if she would be alright with the story being told in that way, and she requested only that he wait until after her death, because it was still quite painful for her many years later. Without being manipulative or heavy-handed, the film makes sense of that pain--George (known to his family as Bertie) is presented as a decent, strong, and thoughtful man who sincerely wants to do right by his office, quite a contrast with his more self-absorbed older brother. Having subjected himself to a series of quack speech therapies with no success, Bertie has lost hope of finding help--and one senses that he is also somewhat imprisoned by the distance his royal status places between him and almost everyone else, and by the curious combination of deference and infantilization that seems to come with the royal territory.

Hope arrives in the unlikely form of Lionel Logue, an Australian who comes highly recommended. Only desperation could have inspired Elizabeth to suggest Lionel, who is entirely self-taught and uncredentialed and whose unconventionality (not typically tolerated in royal circles) is immediately apparent. Bertie quickly finds Lionel exasperating and rejects him as a therapist--and yet circumstances drive him back and the two begin working together.

One of the things that makes Lionel so compelling--and ultimately, so successful--is that he relentlessly insists on what he knows even when he can't explain how he knows it (at least not in a way that Bertie could hear). Lionel operates out of his own way of knowing, not respected by Bertie's world--and yet Bertie's world doesn't have a way of addressing his condition. Lionel gently but firmly requires that he and Bertie be on a first-name basis--part of his method, for sure, but perhaps also particularly necessary given the sense that the forced formality and deference of Bertie's world is part of what keeps him unable to speak. Lionel's method includes some vocal exercises, but it also includes friendship and attentive listening, a sort of ministry of presence that helps Bertie find his voice. Lionel's is the kind of knowing that is little understood and rarely recognized, but always effective where healing is longed for.

The film is observant about how class affects what is possible and what can be seen. Bertie is trapped by his class, yet insists upon the trap. Lionel is a no-account Australian (!) with no credentials and is seen as not deserving of any deference. His attitude toward class distinctions seems disrespectful and, in one sense, it is--and yet, in another sense, he is offering Bertie a more genuine respect. The contrast is especially apparent when it comes time for Bertie's coronation, and we see the difference between the "deference" shown to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the kindness and patience shown by Lionel. By then, Bertie insists on respect for Lionel, something only Bertie can enforce.

The film is anchored by three resonant performances. Colin Firth is just the person to play a quietly troubled but stolid monarch; it is no small feat to so grippingly convey the pain of a stutter, and also to pull off the very clipped way of speaking that was formerly common but has long since fallen out of fashion in Britain. Firth conveys Bertie's depths less with words than with the resolute set of his jaw, the pain in his eyes, the sense that his voice is not his own. Geoffrey Rush captures the sense that Lionel is comfortable with what he recognizes as his own awkwardness, compelled by the sense of what he sees and can demonstrate but can't always explain. And Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth is at her best as a woman who chooses to be cheerful and resolute and always quite appropriate, even while she is in agony over the suffering of the good man she loves.

Eventually, Bertie honored Lionel by inducting him into the Royal Victorian Order, a knighthood recognizing personal service to a monarch. It was a fitting tribute, but no more so than the friendship that the two maintained until Bertie's death. This film speaks profoundly of honor, and of friendship, and of shared humanity that has the capacity to heal what has seemed hopeless.

The other two films I have to recommend are definitely not for everyone, but will intrigue a few of you. "Marwencol" (8.5) is not exactly entertaining, but it is certainly fascinating and challenging. It's a documentary about a very unique lost soul, Mark Hogancamp, who suffered profound memory loss and a personality change after being beaten nearly to death in a bar fight in his small New York town. Before the beating, he was a raging drunk who also loved to draw (mostly violent characters); after, he has no interest in alcohol but also can't really work; his insurance benefits didn't begin to cover the amount of rehabilitation he needed. Although he can no longer draw, the latent artist in him drives Hogancamp to devise his own therapy, the creation of a startingly life-like miniature world populated by Barbies, G.I. Joes, and other dolls that he dresses and poses to look like very convincing characters based on people he actually knows. He names the town that he devises Marwencol and makes it the center of a WWII drama, in which his alter ego is the hero and which has its own social norms and complex story lines. He photographs Marwencol and its inhabitants from artistic angles that require him to painstakingly pose the figures and to physically enter the world itself--and the photographs are so good that he is invited to exhibit them in Greenwich Village. I cannot possibly prepare you for the strangeness of it all--the world Hogancamp creates is eerily complete, and he is strangely lucid and forthcoming about how his nearly constant work on devising Marwencol absorbs and heals him, even while he seems quite childlike. The film is sort of a map of a human soul that will leave you ruminating for days.

"Tiny Furniture" (8) is the work of 23-year-old writer-director Lena Dunham, who also stars as 22-year-old Aura, just returned from college to move back home with her successful artist mother and younger sister in their Tribeca loft. Dunham cast her own mother and sister to play fictionalized versions of themselves and filmed it in their family home, and the film is filled with very knowing and often cringe-worthy dialogue for its self-involved characters, which also include two bad boyfriends and a flamboyant vixen of a female friend. There isn't much of a plot; rather, the film seeks to mine the dilemma of a recent grad who hasn't quite grown into her education (similar to how gangly middle-schoolers take awhile to grow into their adolescent bodies). I liked this film much better in retrospect than I did while watching it--Aura and her friends are insufferable and frequently deserved a good slap. But I have chuckled to myself since then, remembering how aptly Dunham has depicted a sort of lost self-absorption that is common to people of her generation. And despite my irritation, in the end I did sympathize with Aura's struggle to adapt to a world that promised her things it can't really deliver. I also appreciated Dunham's willingness to look like a real-life, doughy girl with a rather ill-advised wardrobe, in contrast to the usual stick-thin, stylist-dressed movie population. Dunham describes herself as "self-absorbed but not vain," which also somewhat describes her film. I think in the end that vibe made it delightful.

1 comment:

Rebekah said...

I've been very excited about the King's Speech...I may just not wait for it to come out on Netflix!