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Why the Most Beloved Film of the Year (Only Slightly) Irks Me

By Dan Saipher | Think Pieces | February 26, 2011 |

By Dan Saipher | Think Pieces | February 26, 2011 |

This year’s little-film-that-could came from a most unlikely source. The writer of The King’s Speech, David Seidler, has amongst his credits two commercial animated flops (1998’s Quest for Camelot and 1999’s The King and I) and was fortunate his film found the perfect audience before it was made. The story of King George VI’s overcoming of a speech impediment took a cast of eccentric actors, and turned them into a compellingly proper and structured English monarchy. But in reopening the history of the UK pre-World War II, Seidler has found himself stung historical accuracy; in neglecting the House of George’s debated Nazi sympathies, is the oft-excoriating criticism of the film’s writer due to his own willful neglect, or are we making a charming film about personal battles into a memorandum on Nazism? Is the King’s Speech Oscar-worthy, or is it merely a product of the outdated preferences of the Academy itself?

That’s not to say The King’s Speech is a less than excellent film, far from it. The film cannot simply be tagged with the label of “period piece.” This is no Keira Knightley ghost-riding the ramparts in a corset and Marge Simpson hairdo, one of the Fiennes brothers emotionally abusing her free spirit across stately monarch manors and ecclesiastical institutions. Colin Firth (Bertie/King George VI) truly does elevate himself with a performance you’d be hard-pressed to place another actor in, and I personally would not deign to see another nominee handed the Oscar. Tom Hooper’s directing is more than capable, it’s full of purpose. Purpose in his portrait-like framing of subjects, the long tracking shots from behind given weight by a camera man’s steps. But Firth seems to be the only character with any depth in the film; we never approach any intimacy with another player, save Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue to a lesser degree.

Each supporting cast member seems but a caricature, meant to convey one-dimensional responses. It’s nice to see Helena Bonham Carter subdued, and she performs admirably, but her struggle is internal and thusly moved onto our interpretation of what she’s feeling behind her proper stoicism. Little is said of the Logue family, so exceptionally average I can’t remember one of their names. And only one film reel of a speech from Adolf Hitler is enough to create the ominous German threat; in his place we are given Guy Pearce (David/King Edward VIII), Bertie’s brother. From his audacious introduction, riding in on a bi-plane with all the pimp and circumstance of a circus showman, to his Gatsby-like lifestyle, all it takes is one professed utterance of Nazi trust to tell us Prince David is the “villain”. But not Bertie, he’s incorruptible. And that is apparently where the controversy lies with The King’s Speech.

The level of vitriol in the grievances heaped upon the film is not something I personally share, but I have my questions. No doubt the intention of Seidler was capturing the protagonist’s struggle with his speech impediment, as the scribe himself was troubled by such an affliction in his youth. The message is of hope and triumph, but by bending perceived historical accuracies, the story remains as black and white as the stock film reels interspersed. Neville Chamberlain is not the Prime Minister of Britain’s dark hour; he’s a smile and a handshake near the film’s end. Winston Churchill was not in favor of Edward VIII abdicating, publicly supporting the short-lived reign and losing massive credibility within the English government. But in The King’s Speech he’s a calming influence, and is most notable for confiding his speech difficulties with Bertie.

Maybe it’s my Jewish-ness that prevents me from giving in fully to the iconic depiction of George VI. Yet that doesn’t make me angry or hyper-critical of the film; merely disappointed. If Bertie had doubts, to me that makes him so much more a conflicted and complex character; if that’s true, did he doubt more than just his ability to speak into a microphone? Did he doubt his own message at first, and come to realize later in the war that the fight against Germany was a fight for the greater good of the world? When trying to separate the issues within The King’s Speech, how do we evaluate such vagaries as the definitions of “embellishment” or “convenience”? How do we evaluate the personal nature of the script; does Seidler’s previously unsuccessful work mean he captured his own life’s lightning in a bottle, or that this talent was hidden beneath his lack of opportunities from major studios?

Am I being selfish in that the policies of the Nazi party are never confronted? Am I playing into a pre-conceived stereotype as the historically-hated Jew? One thing that’s universally true is that all of us able-bodied Israelites have ties to the war and Europe. Most of my family visited Israel, many to the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. My Grandmother never knew what happened to one of her uncles, he who went back to Poland to try and rescue family members only to never have returned. I’m not in deepest touch with my Jewish roots as some of you are, but try spending one solitary night tour in the near-empty United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Walking those sterile glass halls in sensory-depriving silence, in full view of humanity’s worst faculties, you are cognizant of the painful steps it took to birth the generations before you. It’s this that leaves me disappointed in The King’s Speech, disappointed that the perceived reason so many marshaled off to war, and others hid in the subways during air raids, is such a small footnote in what is being labeled as a great film with a greater message.

I solemnly hope I don’t come off as jaded or spiteful; I’ll cheer when Colin Firth wins the Oscar as the rest of you will. His performance is the best male performance I’ve seen since Daniel Plainview, one that comes from a man so physically adept we can feel the strain of the muscles in his mouth as he struggles to form words. Within the time period of his last two great performances (this as well as 2009’s A Single Man), he has been arguably better than the parallel nominations (and one win) by Jeff Bridges. But will he be the only award winner for the film later in the night, and will others’ hotter heads have a say?

Dan Saipher would have been too overwhelmed to write anything if it was “The King Malcolm Tucker’s Speech”.

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