The Social Network is my personal favorite for the Best Picture Oscar in late February, and I will cry out in anger when it is predictably robbed of that honor by The King’s Speech, which by now seems a given. Similarly, I will scream if Tom Hooper snags the Best Director prize from the visionary David Fincher, and again, though with less anger and even less surprise, when Colin Firth bests Jesse Eisenberg for Best Lead Actor. This wasn’t supposed to be a post on my reactions to the Oscars nominations, but I thought you should now a little bit about what lens I watched The King’s Speech through. Call it the ‘The Social Network is my third favorite movie of all time’-lens, if you will.
Its flood of nominations, and that it has to be judged in a head-to-head against The Social Network, definitely skewed my expectations for The King’s Speech. It took me some time to cut the movie’s ambitions down to a size that I was comfortable with. Once I learned to live with a royal intrigue that never interested me in the slightest (and one that was definitely not helped by the one-dimensionally villainous of King Edward VIII, as played by Guy Pearce), and a geo-political context that never really convinced about its high stakes (speaking of over-the-top performances, Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill was a particularly sour note in an otherwise somberly acted film), what played out before me was at its best as an entertaining bromantic comedy.
The King’s Speech only really came alive to me in the scenes with King George VII (Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), his speech therapist. Fortunately, I’ve never suffered from stuttering, but in Firth’s face and voice I heard the humiliation, and eventually the determination, that a person with a handicap has to endure and muster. Granted, after his performance as George Falconer in 2009′s A Single Man, (for which he should have won the Oscar the Academy is set to give him this year) Firth’s voice itself comes with baggage; it brings back memories of that more complex character and his dignified desperation. But Firth is excellent here as well. I’m not in a position to know how technically achieved his stuttering is, but it seems to have become such a seamless part of his performance that he doesn’t need or want to draw attention to that part of his performance at expense of other nuances.
Well-cast in the role of the speech therapist, and playing off of his undeniable chemistry with Firth, Geoffrey Rush at times makes David Seidler’s elegant yet conventional script sparkle with life. To make that happen, Firth’s refusal to show off his stuttering chops comes in just as handy in the lighter scenes. While I personally would have liked to see the film dig a little deeper into the mechanics of speech therapy (which gets some of the best laughs in the film), I was deeply fascinated by the musical quality of trying to create a speaking pattern that gets around the stuttering. The scene in which the duo experiment with what kinds of speech would make the stuttering less prominent, also revealed the humorous energy latent in Firth’s performance.
And in the end, that’s what it all seems to come back to, at every turn. I came into The King’s Speech believing that Tom Hooper had to find a way to expand the story beyond that of one powerful man and his speaking problem, but I went out of it wanting that he hadn’t tried. The movie is at its best when its stakes are personal, not constitutional or geo-political. Whenever George struggles to get his words out, desperately grasping for something to get the flow going like it was the spark in one of George’s notoriously unreliable lighters, I’m there, like a drop of sweat on his forehead. When he tries to assert his authority as king, I don’t really don’t care.
Put another way, The King’s Speech failed where The Social Network succeeded. On a idea level, Fincher’s struggled with some variation of the same challenge: How do you make a story of two guys creating a tech company emotionally interesting? But where Fincher was able to transcend this setup to make a film that said something profound about our hyper-ambitious and performative times while never losing sights of the betrayal story at its core, Tom Hooper drove me away the more macro he went with his story. To tweak an old maxim; he never succeeded in melding the personal and the political. Only half-accomplished, The King’s Speech features of the strongest performances of the awards season, in one of the weaker films.