Sunday, February 13, 2011

My obsession with Colin Firth...

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy
The first time I ever saw Colin Firth was when I watched the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice back in the '90s.  My best friend's mom saw how much I loved the book, and offered her collection of the six or so VHS tapes that make up the mini-series.  I loved it (obviously, it is the best film version of the book in existence) and Mr. Darcy's delicious swimming scene.  Colin Firth had my love from that point on, even with the sideburns.
Poster for The King's Speech

So when I saw the previews for Firth's newest film, The King's Speech, I knew once again that I was about to see a great movie.  And I wouldn't be disappointed.  This film combines some of my favorite things, so I probably would have enjoyed it had it just been mediocre.  My love of British history, royalty, Colin Firth, and stories with an uplifting ending all predisposed me to love this film. But the performances are superior, the sets and costumes pitch perfect, and the story one of warmth and humor that definitely drew me in.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

The King's Speech is about the man now known as King George VI, born Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York (Bertie to his family.)  The film starts with Prince Albert, played by Colin Firth, attempting to give a speech at the end of the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium.  His severe stammer makes it impossible to give the speech, and after seeing several speech therapists at the behest of his wife, Elizabeth, played by Helena Bonham Carter, he gives up in disgust.  But she gets him to try one last time, with an unconventional Australian speech therapist and failed actor named Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.  Logue's insistence on casually calling the Prince by his first name and radical methods unnerve the Prince, but Logue finally convinces him to return and attempt speech therapy.

Duke and Duchess of York with Lionel Logue
At the same time, Prince Albert is facing a country in turmoil.  England is on the brink of World War II, and his father, King George V, has become seriously ill.  His older brother, Edward, played by Guy Pearce, is proving to be immature and wild and has struck up an inappropriate relationship with American divorcee Wallis Simpson.  Prince Albert's close relationship to his loving wife and two daughters help him remain strong, but it is Logue's continued effort as a therapist that helps him both emotionally and physically.

Guy Pearce as King Edward VIII
Eventually, the Prince's father dies, and he must try to make his brother into the King England needs.  But finally King Edward VIII declares that he will abdicate the throne in order to marry his divorcee (which he could not do as King) and Prince Albert must face his impending coronation and future.  Despite a serious fight with Logue, the two eventually reconcile and it is with Logue's help that the Duke of York manages to work through his stammer and realize just how worthy he is to become King.  After the coronation, Logue helps him make a speech over the radio to the country, announcing that England has gone to war with Germany in 1939.  Though said slowly, the speech is said clearly, and King George VI joins his family afterward to wave calmly at his people from the balcony, as Logue looks on from behind.

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter

I think the most surprising performance was that of Helena Bonham Carter.  I'd seen her in A Room with a View, so I knew she could act like a somewhat normal person, but it's been so long that I've seen her in anything that didn't constitute a Tim Burton fantasy that I was a little shocked to see her portraying the Queen Mum so sedately.   She is the rock of this movie, determinedly and oh-so-politely doing everything she can to help her husband, whom it is clear she loves so much.  Even so, Bonham manages to let a little of her own wicked sparkle show through.  She's the Queen Mum, but as a young woman in love with a family.  Bonham does more than play the Queen; she makes you realize why the prince loves her so much.

Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue
Geoffrey Rush is another great actor moving about this film.  He is Firth's antithesis, glibly running around and poking him when he sits too stiffly.  But there is a vulnerability apparent as well.  When with his famous patient, he pretends to know everything, with all the confidence of a doctor.  But alone, and with his family, Rush makes Logue's insecurity show though.  What if he can't cure the future King?  What will his family think?  Is he, a failed actor, really worth the trust that such a man is reluctantly giving him.  Rush could have played Logue as an eccentric Henry Higgins--instead he allows the character to emerge as a much more complicated and vulnerable man.

King George VI with his wife.

Colin Firth as King George VI
Which brings me to Colin Firth.  I recently saw an interview where he mentioned that he had played two other stammerers in his life.  And they had felt very different from this character, and from each other.  The stammer, he says, is not from technique or physical issues, but from an emotional problem.  He felt that this character was frustrated by a life of wanting to say something, and being unable to.  And the stutter in this film is really part of a the Prince's bigger emotional issues.  Firth brings his eternal likability to this film, but also a deep emotional trauma that he is fighting to work through.  It all comes naturally, never once do you feel something forced.

Queen Elizabeth and King George VI
I believe Colin Firth should get the Oscar, but that is something I will address in my next post.  However, I would like to encourage everyone to see this heartwarming historical film.  It is definitely more of a book club, Sunday-afternoon-with-mom kind of film, but I loved it nonetheless.

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