Not all Costume Dramas are good

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TLO and I saw The King's Speech Monday night, as a sort of last hurrah to our holiday times. I said to TLO (and meant it) that it was a good movie. It features a stunt-role for Firth, and an acceptable job by Geoffrey Rush (his Magical Speech Therapist is given a slightly scheming, maybe even creepy-controlling edge, and that's good).

But think about the plot carefully: Edward VIII is not up to the royal duties of document-handling, and not marrying divorcees. George VI stammers and is thus hopeless at public speaking. But with the support of a speech therapist, lovable Bertie makes it through. Meanwhile, actual vital decision-makers of England (Chamberlain, Churchill...) were relegated to applauding his great effort.

Counterfactual time: if George VI had been utterly unable to speak in public, wouldn't he have been able to carry out virtually all his duties, albeit in a somewhat diminished way? It's certainly fair to claim that his words aided morale and made the people love him (thus reducing any latent republican sentiment, perhaps made bold by the abdication), but wasn't every memorable speech from WWII given by Churchill (or, being unguarded, Hitler, who actually steals a scene in the film courtesy of two minutes of included archive footage)? I'm a pretty loyal monarchist, but this movie stirred hitherto-unknown republican sentiments. But not Nazi. I'm still not a Nazi. Just want to be clear about that.

And having praised the acting, I'm going to single out Timothy Spall for a scenery-chewing cameo as Winston Churchill. I've decided to reserve judgment on this performance: it was weird and rather showy, but there's an argument to be made that Churchill really was like that, and it's hardly the actor's fault if the character performs weirdly.

This movie had long gaps between interesting dialogues and scenes. It had hardly any cinematography that didn't come from the Costume Drama Cliche Playbook (and it may be a personal quirk, but accepting grainy ambient-lit film shots as an aesthetic choice in 2010 is strange, as if the director and cinematographer were planning a direct-to-VHS release*), and the soundtrack was uninspired classical with one exception.

The musical exception: the long, climactic scene of the two main characters and The Big Speech is some worthwhile cinema. I'd encourage you to seek that part of the movie out, if you don't have time for the other 90 minutes. And given that I've long been on the record as praising the first half of Demolition Man, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that scene nearly makes the movie. Coming where it does, and being so good, I think it did a lot of reviewer-seduction.

My complaint is that you could have happily compressed those other 90 minutes into 5 minutes, and made this into a really compelling 10-20 minutes of drama (it's a shame, in a way, that such a project might have great artistic merit without having an obvious commercial outlet). Or, this story could have been a small part of a more compelling movie about George VI's life. Either way, it was a technically adequate film with an insipid script, featuring some really good actors, and one great scene.

Let's compare this, by the way, to a movie I saw this year that was good: The Other Guys. That movie puts the most over-the-top action sequence of the year on the front end of a lively and creative comedy hanging on a cop-buddy skeleton. I'm not a slavishly devoted Will Ferrell fan, but his work here is great, and the concept of taking Intense Mark Wahlberg (here recycling about 90% of the character from The Departed) and making him the straight man is one of many inspired turns. And here I will stop to thank Georgia Straight critic Patty Jones for picking it as one of her Top Movies of 2010, thus vindicating the raving I was already doing about this film (TLO does not thank Patty Jones, as now I will not stop talking about The Other Guys).

And one more aside: The King's Speech will likely get a raft of nominations for Best Picture/Director/Screenplay (the Golden Globes have already gifted it that trifecta, plus more justifiable nods for the three main actors). Meanwhile, The Other Guys will be ignored, even by the Golden Globes, which feature a COMEDY/MUSICAL CATEGORY! I will now stop getting worked up about awards in general and movie awards in particular, except to say that I can't think of any of them (maybe Cannes?) that would actually work as a decent guide to Old Movies People Still Care About.

The plaudits for The King's Speech do worry me personally, not because the world's taste is wrong, but because it's hard to be so weird. I begin to wonder if I'm an utterly unreliable reviewer of movies, or if I'm watching them wrong. Oh well.

Finally, an administrative note: Comments are Closed. Despite some excellent feedback from you, my readers, all 20 of you, the system is swamped with quasi-spammy crap. I will soon ensure my email (Gmail murders spam. I love it) and Twitter accounts are visible on all pages (and posts will be happily updated with salient points from my readers), and I will fall back on Facebook, which is a far livelier venue for discussion of these posts. The people (and alas, the spammers) have spoken, and Wired Cola is a client-centred ecosystem which in all cases endeavors to maximize the synergies that allow us to leverage the only Cybermorphic blogging platform in the world. We have what you need, and these needful things will be provided!

*The "VHS" observation was by Ben, but was too good not to steal.