Thursday 6 January 2011

Impediments: "The King's Speech" and "127 Hours" (ST 09/01/11)

The King’s Speech (12A) 118 mins ****
127 Hours (15) 94 mins ****

The King’s Speech concerns itself with the historical implications of a stutter. In one corner, it has Colin Firth’s Duke of York, soon to be George VI, wrestling with the speech impediment that has rendered public speaking a nightmare. In the other, we find Hitler, a leader whose very appeal lay in his oratorical skills. Closer to home, George V (Michael Gambon) is marching towards the gravest of silences, and the Duke’s brother Edward (Guy Pearce) can talk solely of that Simpson woman. The need for someone to step up to the plate – or radio microphone – grows ever greater: it’s a film in which the Empire is threatened not by war, but dead air.

Drafted in to address this vacuum is Harley Street speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a garrulous Australian with a fondness for garish interior design. The Duke’s sessions with Logue form the film’s dramatic meat, but a full British repertory is on hand to observe their progress. Helena Bonham Carter is loving, eccentric, and nigh-perfect casting as the young Queen Mum; Derek Jacobi is a fretting Archbishop of Canterbury, approaching the coronation like a church fête threatened by rain; Timothy Spall offers a sly Churchill.

You soon intuit why they were drawn to David Seidler’s fine screenplay: its raw material is language itself. Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare becomes a touchstone: Logue auditions as Richard III for a local am-dram group, George finds solace in Hamlet. In the part of real-life troubled prince, Firth continues his series of increasingly skilful variations on a very English stiffness. Last year’s A Single Man, stylish yet silly, looked like a dress rehearsal for major prizes. This could well be his accession: a sustained and wholly sympathetic piece of precision technical acting that allows us to feel every word catching in George’s throat like a rogue fishbone.

It would be easy to underestimate Rush’s contribution here. Logue is hardly the most fragrant character – he first emerges to the sound of a flushing toilet – but his role is pristinely clear: to relieve the verbal and emotional constipation central to so many Firth performances, his treatment eventually cueing a most un-kingly torrent of curses. In such scenes, director Tom Hooper stresses his characters’ vocal rhythms, deploying off-kilter camera choices to suggest George’s unbalance: the King-to-be is rendered dumbstruck at one turn by the looming portraits of his illustrious predecessors.

What the film shares with The Queen is a way of getting us to think about the Royals less as an institution than as individuals weighed down by pomp and circumstance. George struggles with his words, Edward with his deeds, and both realise they must embrace New World modernity – whether American or Antipodean, radio or therapy – if they are to survive. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret are on hand, with corgis, to assure us there will be a happy ending of sorts, yet this quietly subversive drama approaches royalty with something altogether more probing than outright deference: this once, they are very much the subjects.

127 Hours runs to 94 minutes, and offers further proof – after Slumdog Millionaire, the film that couldn’t be contained – that, as a director, Danny Boyle thrives on the rush and the push of the chase. His latest protagonist, real-life extreme-sports enthusiast Aron Ralston (James Franco), first appears as a bounding big kid, relentlessly pursuing his own agenda – Boyle can barely keep him in frame, until that fateful slip while canyoneering in Utah that left Ralston’s arm trapped under a boulder. (With mordant wit, Boyle delays the title’s on-screen appearance until the arm is wedged firmly in place.) Henceforth, 127 Hours is just us, Ralston, the boulder, and the physical and mental tools our hero had remaining at his disposal.

Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy work their crampons off dramatising Ralston’s dreams and worst fears: a sudden storm serves as its own watershed moment, prompting this erstwhile adrenalin junkie into weighing up what really matters. Yes, it gets grisly: there’s even a Dido song, which seems some way from Iggy Pop belting out “Lust for Life” in Trainspotting. Yet maybe this canyon is where all those junkies in Boyle’s previous movies were heading: not towards the facile highs of Slumdog, but a hit tempered with hard-won life experience. Ralston’s plight comes to demonstrate – vividly, graphically – just what that lust for life can get you. It's a trip, all right, but sometimes you have to give your right arm for it.

The King's Speech and 127 Hours open nationwide from tomorrow.

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