Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Character Study: The King’s Speech and Winter’s Bone

When a proper Englishwoman comes into the office of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) seeking help for her husband’s speech impediment and explaining that his job requires much public speaking, Logue suggests her husband find a different job. Of course when it’s revealed that her husband is the Duke of York, things change.

The real life story of King George VI’s rise to power and struggle to overcome stuttering, The King’s Speech is really built on the strong performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Playing the King-to-be, called Bertie by his family, Firth does a masterful job of creating a prickly and sensitive royal whose speech difficulties have impaired not only his ability to communicate but also his sense of self-worth.

Meeting for the first time, Logue insists on calling the Duke Bertie and asking personal questions. Logue’s methodology is miles from anything Bertie has experienced before, and it’s clear from the very start that Logue intends to overstep normal boundaries.

As Bertie and Logue begin their speech sessions, a subtle friendship emerges. But while Bertie is on the precipice of curbing his speaking difficulties, his father, the King, dies, leaving the throne to his older brother David (Guy Pearce). The world is on the brink of WWII and David is carrying on an affair with a married woman from (gasp!) Baltimore. When David chooses the woman over the crown, Bertie must assume the position.

The King’s Speech really succeeds when it lets in moments of great humor. Firth has some great lines, but almost all of the humor is provided by Rush, who manages to steal nearly every scene he’s in. Logue’s theatrical ambitions add just the right amount of misplaced bravado.

If the movie feels a bit slow, that’s largely part of its aesthetic. It’s a relatively simple story whose pacing is a function of that simplicity – it takes a while to build climactic interest.

There are a couple of minor cosmetic details that feel odd. It’s hard to believe that David is older than Bertie – both in his impetuousness and appearance. A bit more could have been done to make Pearce look believably older, as he’s actually seven years younger than Firth. Additionally, it’s hard to get past the appearance of Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall). Perhaps it’s because Spall played Susan Sarandon’s henchman Nathaniel in Enchanted, but something about him is distracting.

The real injustice of The King’s Speech though is the “R” rating. The film has a couple of moments featuring the spouting of curse words – not said maliciously and not directed at anyone, and yet this uplifting piece about the power of friendship has the same rating as Saw 3-D. Now that’s something to curse about.


Taking the top spot on the Onion AV Club’s list of 2010’s best films, and landing at number five on Roger Ebert’s list, (not to mention bunches of other lists) there’s been much critical acclaim for Winter’s Bone, and it’s easy to see why. Winter’s Bone feels like a poignant short story – centering on 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a rural Missouri teen who is basically serving as the adult of her family. Ree is tasked with raising her younger brother and sister in the stead of her seemingly catatonic mother and absent father.

When an officer lets Ree know that her father has posted their house as collateral to make bail (he’s been caught up in drugs), Ree sets out to track down her father. While Ree gets some assistance from her friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), she’s virtually on her own. It’s never quite clear who, if anyone, Ree can really trust. Even her neighbors and her uncle are infused with a conniving creepiness.

What Winter’s Bone does so well is deliver tiny moments of large realization. In one sequence we see Ree peer into the high school gym – we don’t know if she regularly attends school, but we do know that she is looking in on a world of which she is not a part. Those simple regular teenage things – marching bands and pep rallies – belong to other people, not to her.

Lawrence, looking much like Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain, carries the film on her back, giving a powerful, layered performance. Through the harsh circumstances Lawrence gives Ree a vulnerability that highlights her tender age and allows the film’s final moments to be as triumphant as they are disturbing.

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