Movie audiences never tire of peeking into royal chambers, witnessing fast-acting psychoanalyses, cheering on the average Joe or seeing Herr Hitler get his nose bloodied; so it’s easy to understand the appeal of The King’s Speech, in which George VI single-handedly defeats the Nazis thanks to a course of treatment from an unlicensed commoner. And there’s more: The King’s Speech enjoys the always popular trait of being true, more or less.
In the 1920s, when the future George VI was still the Duke of York, he sought a cure for his stammer (a severe impediment to public duties) but found no help until he put himself in the hands of an uncredentialed Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue. Their relationship might not have had the world-historical import that The King’s Speech works up for it at the climax, nor was Logue necessarily as shabby and obscure as the movie makes him out to have been; but when war came between England and Germany, and subjects throughout the empire had to be rallied to the cause, George VI did manage to deliver the necessary radio address, and Logue’s coaching was integral to its success.
Which is to say that The King’s Speech is a crowd-pleasing movie about the importance of pleasing crowds.
David Seidler’s screenplay unabashedly states that theme out loud (just as it goes about unabashedly running the whole narrative pool table) when in the early scenes it has the rich-toned and overbearing George V (Michael Gambon) lecture his wretchedly tongue-tied second son on the role of monarchs in the new age of mass movements and radio. "We’re actors," grumbles the old king. Although this observation would have been banal even in the 1920s, Gambon delivers it with a saving mixture of distaste and satisfaction—distaste because George V prides himself on bearing burdens unimaginable to an ordinary performer and satisfaction because in his superiority he has mastered the modern airwaves. Why can’t his son?
"Why?" turns out to be exactly the question that Geoffrey Rush as Logue (or Lionel, as he prefers to be called) repeatedly presses on Colin Firth as the royal patient (or Bertie, as Lionel persists in calling him). The royal family may care about nothing but results, but Lionel must have reasons. Only viewers who are entirely ignorant of dramatic conventions will fail to guess what’s coming when Bertie and his loving wife, Elizabeth (the ever-welcome Helena Bonham Carter), insist that the problem is purely physical, and no impertinent questions about the duke’s personal life will be allowed. Only viewers who are entirely impervious to dramatic pleasure will fail to enjoy the ensuing contest—not just between Lionel and Bertie but also between Rush and Firth.
One lopes about and croons like a hyperarticulate camel; the other squares himself up and clicks at the back of his throat like a handsomely wrapped toy that’s malfunctioned. You might think Rush would have the advantage, given his centripetal personality, plus the opportunity to wow the audience with tongue twisters. But despite giving him a warm and chummy character to play, and occasions for jocular virtuosity, the movie maneuvers him into second place in the audience’s affections behind the chronically self-contained Firth. Everything well calculated and responsible in Firth’s approach to acting, even in comedy, finds its ideal outlet in Bertie, a man so alert to every nuance of duty that he hardly blinks, and so trapped that his eyes continually flash with desperate, mute intelligence. It’s yet another convention respected by The King’s Speech, this binding of an able-bodied actor, whose physical protest against the constraints he’s adopted reads as if it’s the character’s emotional pain. But conventional characters rarely have the genuine wit that Seidler’s screenplay gives Bertie; or the credible relationship with a smart, protective and admiring wife; or the suggestion that his struggle corresponds with the actor’s patient, laborious, ultimately brilliant construction of the performance.
What makes Firth’s achievement, and Bertie’s, especially affecting, I think, is the slight shabbiness of their surroundings. For a movie that’s concerned with global power—dwelling in its first and last scenes on a BBC broadcast center, where ranks of machines are helpfully labeled with the names of countries around the world—The King’s Speech scrapes by with surprisingly limited resources. A half-dozen interiors accommodate most of the action, with furnishings scarcely more lavish than the fake mustache worn by Michael Gambon. (It looks like a long, fat dust bunny that somebody rolled up and pasted to his lip.) Soundtrack music is ladled heavily onto every scene, in the old tradition of British cinema, with extra dollops of Mozart and Beethoven to keep the tone classy. The most distinctive aspect of director Tom Hooper’s visual style is that it doesn’t exist.
Or, to put it another way, Hooper’s images in The King’s Speech are much like the movie’s most important setting, Lionel’s office: a half-grandiose and half-unfinished basement room, low of ceiling, expansive of floor plan, in which beautifully wrought old woodwork is set into walls of raw, peeling cement. In this underground hideaway, the royal prince and the commoner from the colonies form a bond that must not be publicly acknowledged—similar, you might say, to the bond between Bertie’s older brother, the short-term Edward VIII, and Mrs. Wallis Simpson, only all-male and therapeutic.
Like the movie itself, this core setting is an improbable melding of clever construction with shameless cliché, of cheap make-do with aspirations toward good taste. The wonder is that this sort of thing should enable such an involving and satisfying relationship to come about—between Lionel and Bertie, and between you and what’s happening on the screen. The wonder is that The King’s Speech does what Bertie, Lionel, Firth and Rush are willing to do, and Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson are not. It really works.
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For his next astonishing feat, that wizard of the animated screen Sylvain Chomet, master of The Triplets of Belleville, has pulled out of his hat an all-new Jacques Tati film. At least it’s close enough to being all-new and all-Tati to deceive the eye—and who, witnessing this marvel, would not want to be fooled?
Chomet’s source is L’Illusionniste, a script Tati wrote sometime in the early 1950s, when his recent success with Jour de fête had not blunted the memory of being a middle-aged music-hall performer knocking around Europe but going nowhere. In his biography of Tati, David Bellos writes that the earliest version of L’Illusionniste takes its title character, a mediocre stage magician, "down the ladder of international engagements to end up amusing Ruritanian peasants…in the back of beyond." There this surrogate Tati attracts a single admirer—a "wide-eyed, teen-age girl who really believes in the magic that she sees on stage"—who decides to accompany him on his travels. His career picks up again when they get to the Great City; but then the girl meets and falls for a young student, who fills her in on the facts of sleight of hand. She runs off with him, and the magician, alone once more, leaves the Great City on a train bound somewhere.
Bellos reports that soon after the release of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot in 1953, Tati said this story (with its ample potential for Chaplinesque self-pity) would likely be his next movie. It wasn’t, of course—he did Mon Oncle instead, remaining in the character of Hulot—but as late as 1961 he was still thinking about making the film.
Now Chomet has given us something that might be even better than Tati himself in L’Illusionniste: a cartoon character, Tatischeff, with pants that are too short, a suit jacket that’s too pinched, a nose that’s been cranked up too high and a rabbit that’s too quick to escape from its top hat and bite someone, plying his less-than-amazing trade through the beautifully animated scenes of The Illusionist. The tone is more sweetly melancholic than it might have been in Tati’s film, since Chomet looks back on a world of music halls that have long gone dark. The setting is both grittier and more picturesque; the Great City has been turned into a 1959 Edinburgh drawn as a maze of twisting brick lanes, giddily slanted streets, stiltlike bridges and half-hidden staircase passages, all tucked improbably under a cliff that’s as protuberant as Tatischeff’s nose. Here the characters emit the characteristic Tati gibble-gabble in place of words—"Ha nigh day!" cries a passing American through his permanent ear-to-ear grin—but with physiognomies and gestures that can fully match the distortion.
Most important of all: the relationship between Tatischeff and Alice, the credulous serving-girl who follows him to Edinburgh, has become palatable by becoming animated. I’m not sure I could have watched a live Tatischeff and stupid, needy Alice share their forlorn little hotel suite in presumed chastity. But as cartoon characters, Alice and Tatischeff inhabit something that is by nature a world of wonders, where nothing unsavory need happen when her desire for an all-powerful sugar daddy meets his desire for an ideal audience. The way Chomet keeps posing these two behind windowpanes perhaps acknowledges the softening and distancing that animation makes possible. At the end, Chomet also inserts a subtle bit of character revelation—I suspect it’s his invention, from the way it’s worked into the film—that allows the relationship between Tatischeff and Alice to change in retrospect and bring The Illusionist to a quietly moving close.
The Illusionist will not open until December 25, so I’m a little early in recommending it. But there’s never a bad moment for confessing you’ve fallen in love with a film—especially one that’s appeared out of time.
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How they would have enjoyed Black Swan, the Surrealists, back when they pretended the Paris movie theaters were public parks, to be used for picnicking and free-associative conversation! How they would have reveled in it, the camp followers of my ’60s youth, delighting to see a movie claw its way up the gilded peaks of sublimity, only to display, for all eyes, the idiot underpants of bathos!
I laughed longer and louder than at any other movie this year; but before you try doing the same, be aware that you’ll have to twitch and sigh through the first two-thirds, and then, when it gets good, face the wrath of people who are taking Black Swan seriously.
How they do it, I can’t imagine. "We all know the story," cries master choreographer Vincent Cassel to his New York City ballet company as it begins rehearsals for Swan Lake; but just in case any members of his corps (or the movie audience) are slow, he summarizes the plot anyway, then promises that his new production will "make it visceral and real." A visceral and real Swan Lake makes as much sense to me as does Cassel’s complaint to his dancers, a few scenes later, that "you’re stiff like a dead corpse!" (It took three people to write this stuff.) But enough of Mr. Impresario. On to poor, childlike Natalie Portman as the little dancer he improbably chooses to play the lead, on the assumption that she can somehow discover her inner Black Swan.
This is the side of the movie that isn’t so funny: its revival of the myth of the frigid girl, repressed and mother-dominated, who must be sexually awakened and also, unfortunately, has to go nuts. It’s the same story as Carrie, told with a similar pretense of sympathy for the young woman the film is out to punish.
The difference is that after all the tiresome displays of pink wallpaper and stuffed toys to telegraph the heroine’s infantilism, all the visits to the toilet to dramatize her abjection, all the studiously giddy camerawork and Dancing With the Stars choreography (which keeps Portman busy tossing about her arms and mugging, as she does her swoon fake), you get to the part of the movie where uncanny forces break loose—just as in Carrie!—and they’re juicier than a bucket of pig’s blood.
Black Swan is un film de Darren Aronofsky.