Friday, April 29, 2011

Film Review : The King's Speech (dir Tom Hooper)

Being almost the last person in the country to have seen The King’s Speech, there is very little that one can say that has not already been said. The film is as finely shot a period piece as one would expect from Tom Hooper, full of browns and sepia tints. David Siedler’s screenplay tugs all the correct emotional strings as a Good Man triumphs over Adversity, the prince and the commoner (Australian to boot!) reach a mutual understanding in the face of a hostile establishment and save the country from Naziism. Colin Firth gives a bravura representation of the stammering King George VI (although personally I thought the subtler registers of A Single Man was a finer performance), Geoffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue was superb as ever, and Helena Bonham-Carter played Helena Bonham-Carter as though she was born to be Queen.

If I sound a bit off with the film I don’t mean to be – I enjoyed it thoroughly, and haven’t seen any film in the past year which I felt could seriously challenge it for the honours it has won. I do think however that there is one aspect of the screenplay which demand deeper analysis – namely, in a period film based on true events to what extent is the writer justified in altering the facts in the interest of heightening the emotional impact of the drama?

Certainly, altering dramatic facts has an exemplary pedigree. Shakespeare played fast and loose with his historical sources: telescoping events, altering characterisations, changing the whole nature of historical incidents, and no-one denied him the right to his dramatic licence. In The King’s Speech, all the above devices are used for dramatic impact. Is this justified?

There is a compact implied between the Director and the Audience whereby certain genres deliver certain degrees of historical accuracy. So, for example, the restrictions of the theatrical form necessarily imply an interpretative freedom even though the playwright is scrupulously remaining true to the facts as he sees them – as you can see in some of the works of David Hare, for example. On the other hand, documentary – when not being subverted by the likes of Chris Morris – implies a faithfulness to the facts no matter how they are represented. In these post-modern times, markers traditionally set out by the director by which the audience can evaluate the level of historical veracity which has been employed in developing a storyline no longer can be trusted. However, The King’s Speech sets out to convince the audience that its story is true through its preamble, its realistic style, its grainy brown filters, its strong anchors in recognisable characters and events and even in its metafilm – its marketing and pre-publicity.

Yet facts have been altered for dramatic purposes [facts taken from the wikipedia article on The King's Speech section on historical accuracy]. Contrary to the timelines in the film, the then-Duke of York commenced working with Lionel Logue in 1926 to his immediate benefit. The displacement of this improvement to the time of the abdication crisis in the film is non-material and makes absolute dramatic sense. Churchill is repeatedly shown fussing around government circles in 1936 when in fact he had been banished to the Wilderness at that time, for no very good reason other than the fact that he is a recognisable character. There were no applauding courtiers (unrealistic and condescending in my opinion) or cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace after the King’s Speech – that was rather cheap emotional grandstanding on the part of the filmmakers.

However, intrinsic to the truth of the film is the nature of the relationship between Logue and the King. Logue is represented as a maverick, who used swearing as part of his therapy, and who insisted on calling the King “Bertie” and the King calling him “Lionel”. Logue’s grandson Robert claims that this is not the case. If this is indeed the case, then I feel that it destroys a critical aspect of their relationship and thus the pillars upon which the film is constructed. Without the subversion of their relationship as King and Subject, the film becomes a much less interesting speech therapy case-study.

So is it a film based on an error, and much the worse for that? Well, firstly we do not know if the recollections of Robert Logue are accurate themselves, and secondly it still succeeds as a drama, potentially ahistorical though featuring historical characters. But the filmmakers in their initial compact with the audience have implied that this is a dramatised version of the truth of George VI's relationship with his Speech Therapist, and if the fundamental facts of this relationship do not hold up then the truth itself will have been subverted. William Wallace was never Braveheart before Hollywood intervened, Krakatoa will always be East of Java, and Lionel Logue will always be remembered for encouraging Bertie to swear at the top of his voice. And it is the intrinsic truth of that relationship which is important from a dramatic point of view, not whether Churchill was present during the abdication crisis, as that is what the film is ultimately about, and if it is not true about that then the film is not being true to itself.

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