The King’s speech
British films that make it to American screens these days often fall into two distinct niches: life is miserable and life is sweet. And it’s no surprise that The King’s Speech, a buddy story about charming opposites—Colin Firth as the stutterer who would be king and Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist—comes with heaping spoonfuls of sugar.
Magnificent: The King’s Speech
The story largely unfolds during the Great Depression, building to the compulsory rousing end in 1939 when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, world calamities that don’t have a patch on the urgent matter of the speech impediment of Albert Frederick Arthur George (Firth). As a child, Albert, or Bertie as his family called him, the shy, sickly second son of King George V (Michael Gambon, memorably severe and regal), had a stutter debilitating enough that as an adult he felt compelled to conquer it. In this he was aided by his wife Elizabeth (a fine Helena Bonham Carter).
Albert meets his new speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Rush), reluctantly and after several public and private humiliations. As eccentric and expansive as Albert is reserved, Logue enters the movie with a flourish, insisting that they meet in his shabby chic office and that he be permitted to call his royal client, then the Duke of York, by the informal Bertie. It’s an ideal odd coupling.
Albert barks and brays and raps out a calculatingly cute string of expletives. With their volume turned up, the appealing, impeccably professional Firth and Rush rise to the acting occasion by twinkling and growling as their characters warily circle each other before settling into the therapeutic swing of things and unknowingly preparing for the big speech that partly gives the film its title.
The film takes a relatively benign view of the monarchy, framing Albert as a somewhat poor little rich boy condemned to live in a fishbowl. Each character has his moments—instances when Bertie the closed book tentatively opens and Logue’s arrogance gets away from him, but both are too decent, too banal and the film too ingratiating to resonate deeply. Albert’s impediment certainly pales in comparison with the drama surrounding his older, popular brother, David, later King Edward VIII (a fantastic Guy Pearce), and his married American divorcée, Mrs Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
That film does have its attractions, notably in its two solid leads and standout support from Pearce. Mercurially sliding between levels of imperiousness and desperation, he creates a thorny tangle of complications in only a few abbreviated scenes. By the time he abdicates in 1936, turning the throne over to King George VI, Edward has a hold on your affections. Like many entertainments of this pop-historical type, The King’s Speech wears history lightly no matter how heavy the crown.
A witchy brew of madness and cunning, Black Swan tells the story of a ballerina who aches, with battered feet and an increasingly crowded head, to break out of the corps. Played by Natalie Portman in a smashing, bruising, wholly committed performance, the dancer, Nina, looks more like a child than a woman, her flesh as undernourished as her mind. When she goes to bed at night, a nearby jewellery box tinkling Swan Lake, a crowd of stuffed animals watch over her, long-time companions that—as Nina and this dementedly entertaining film grow more unhinged—begin to look more like jailers than friends.
Natalie Portman in the Black Swan
Crammed with twins—lookalikes, mirrored images, doppelgangers—the story follows the Swan Lake ballet in broad, gradually warped strokes. It opens with the artistic director of a fictional New York ballet company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), announcing that the new season will begin with a “visceral and real” version of that old favourite. He dumps his prima ballerina and picks Nina to dance the role of the swan queen (an enchanted woman in bird form) and her villainous black twin. But as the pressure builds, things fall apart, or Nina does.
Part tortured-artiste drama, Black Swan looks like art-house entertainment. But what gives it a jolt is its giddy, sometimes sleazy exploitation-cinema savvy.
One of the pleasures of Black Swan is its lack of reverence towards the rarefied ballet world, which to outsiders can look as lively as a crypt. Director Darren Aronofsky makes this world (or his version of it) exciting partly by pulling back the velvet curtains and showing you the sacrifices and hard work that go into creating beautiful dances.
Black Swan surprises despite its lusty, or rather sluttish, predilection for clichés, which include the requisitely demanding impresario (Cassel makes a model cock of the walk) and Nina’s ballerina rival, Lily (Mila Kunis, as a succulent, borderline rancid peach). Portman’s performance is more art than autobiography, and thus more honest. This is, after all, Portman’s own thin body on display, her jutting chest bones as sharply defined as a picket fence. Although Aronofsky focuses on her head, shoulders and arms, mostly avoiding long shots that might betray a lack of technique, Portman does most of her own dancing. The vision of Portman’s body straining with so much tremulous, tremendous effort, her pale arms fluttering in desperation, grounds the story in the real, as do the totemic Lincoln Center buildings, the clattering subway and the claustrophobic apartment Nina shares with her mom.
Together they create the solid foundation of truth that makes the slow-creeping hallucinatory flights of fantasy all the more jolting and powerful. Much like the new version of “Swan Lake” that Thomas creates, Black Swan is visceral and real even while it’s one delirious, phantasmagoric freakout.
©2011/The New York Times
The King’s Speech and Black Swan released in theatres on Friday.