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A picnic for Anglophiles, not to mention a prospective Oscar bonanza for the brothers Weinstein, The Kings Speech is a well-wrought, enjoyably amusing inspirational drama that successfully humanizes, even as it pokes fun at, the House of Windsor.
The storyshy young prince helped by irascible wizard to break an evil spell and lead his nation to glorious victoryis a good one. Directed by telefilm tyro Tom Hooper from veteran screenwriter David Seidlers more-or-less-factual script, a cast of Anglo-Aussie stalwarts hit their marks with professional aplomb as Bertie Windsor (Colin Firth), the future George VI and father of Englands present queen, overcomes a crippling stammer and his natural priggishness thanks to the eccentric ministrations of unconventional, adorably déclassé, transplanted Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
The tension between repressed Bertie, an unwilling sovereign, and irrepressible Lionel, a failed Shakespearean actoror, better, between Firths controlled fury and Rushs relaxed hammingis played out in the moviemaking: Nostalgic for the old Miramax formula, The Kings Speech treats clipped British understatement with the percussive, mildly distortive wide-angle close-ups that characterized the hearty Australian comedies of the Strictly Ballroom era. The movie is not entirely irresistible, but it would be difficult not to empathize with Berties painful plight, particularly in comparison to the glib bonhomie of his fellow royals: Michael Gambon as overbearing father, King George V; Helena Bonham Carter as solicitous helpmeet, the future Queen Mum; Guy Pearce as feckless elder brother Edward VIII, who abdicates the throne to marry American shady lady Wallis Simpson (Eve Best, a near ringer for the society vixen). The cast is rounded out by Derek Jacobi as the fusty Archbishop of Canterbury; and Timothy Spall who, vainly trying to upstage Rush, camps his way through the role of Winston Churchill.
At one point, George V complains that the new invention of radio has effectively transformed Englands royal family: Weve become actors! The movies key historical fact is the mass-mediated merger of monarchy and showbizalong with the emergence of the wireless as nationalisms new tribal drum. Theres a sly moment when Bertie is wistfully transfixed by a motion-picture newsreel of the epochs most potent orator, Germanys new chancellor, Herr Hitler. Now theres a fellow who doesnt hold back! (George Orwell was only one of many who believed that the hooplah inherent in a constitutional monarchy saved Britain from domestic fascism.)
Big historical events take a backseat as The Kings Speech puts its protagonist on the couch. A natural psychoanalyst, Lionel compels the prince to visit him daily in his ramshackle lower-middle-class lodgings and insists on first names. Its Pygmalion in reverse, with Lionel playing a democratizing Henry Higgins to Berties aristocratic Eliza Doolittle. Hes the shrink as demystifier. Therapist and patient bond over the old kings death, with impertinent Lionel going so far as to suggest that bad parenting effectively tied Berties tongue. A more elaborate Freudian explanation might link Berties retentive-expulsive speech patterns to his unconscious equation of words with feces. In any case, Lionel trains Bertie to sing and dance and curse his way into a radio address, and, as in The Queen, if to less ironic effect, the monarchy is here preserved by a clever commoner.
The grand finale has the whole nation listening as invisible Lionel conducts the Kings declaration of war in 39hard-won eloquence discreetly goosed by Hoopers use of gradually swelling background music. Thats the official Rocky moment, although the movie really finds its voice in those therapy sessions, when it bids to be a feature-length episode of In Treatment.
Even as the Brits were stirred by their new kings newfound eloquence, a different national saga was holding Americans rapt. Published in the spring of 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbecks novel of Depression hardship and Dust Bowl displacement, was still a bestseller when Fox rushed John Fords adaptation into production, with Henry Fonda as the heroic Okie Tom Joad.
Opening in January 1940, to some of the best notices ever garnered by a Hollywood movie and revived in a new 35mm print for a week at Film Forum, The Grapes of Wrath is more than a movieor a novel, or the acme of Popular Front sentimentality. Its a myth to which many have contributed. Just as artist Thomas Hart Benton gave the migrants a lusty vitality in the lithographs that illustrated the books deluxe edition, cinematographer Gregg Tolands images paraphrased Farm Service Agency photographs to illuminate the Joad familys Route 66 odyssey from Oklahoma to California. The 1990 Steppenwolf stage production distilled the novel into a series of tableauxas did Woody Guthries 17-verse Tom Joad, composed in a single night in April 1940. No less than Fonda, Guthrie derived iconic stature through association with Steinbecks novelhis New York breakthrough came when he appeared at a benefit Grapes of Wrath Evening, announced as a real Dust Bowl refugee.
Fondas performance is just about the only laconic thing in Fords moviemuch of which was declaimed on studio soundstages. The opening scene is so stylized in its Midwestern landscape, you expect to see Ray Bolgers Scarecrow among the cantankerous geezers and hyperactive salt-of-the-earth types. Oscar-winning Jane Darwell sits heavily on the role of Ma Joad; its crazy preacher John Carradine who steals the movie with his wide-eyed stare and masticated delivery.
Ford celebrates family values and emphasizes the innate goodness of the American people, or at least most of them. Tea Party types may reach for their coats the second time honest working folk are hornswoggled by exploitative entrepreneurs and be out the door even before the Joads stumble upon a federal campsite run by a miniature FDR and someone who introduces himself as head of the Central Committee. Theres no missing Fondas annoyed response to right-wing vigilante demagoguery (What is these Reds anyway? he wonders when somebody calls him one). Not even Mas celebrated curtain-closer (Well go on forever, cause were the people) can efface the heros philosophical assertion that were each a little piece of a big soul. Hard times, migrant workers, and homespun rhetoric notwithstanding, The Grapes of Wrath is itself a bit homelessamazingly irrelevant to the present moment.
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