With a cast like this how can anyone not be really really excited? And check out who the director is…
If Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush hadn’t been in this movie it might have come across as a nice but highly predictable British period drama, with the inevitably irritating, saccharine formula and the predictably uplifting conclusion. But Firth as King George VI and Rush as his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue grab their roles and fire them up with incredible intelligence, honesty and likeability. The film skirts over difficult areas – the rise of Hitler and the constitutional crisis caused by Edward’s (Guy Pearce) relationship with Wallis Simpson never really affect the tone of the film – it’s rather Firth who makes their impact on Albert/George clear. A man instructed never to show emotion, Firth masterfully shows the highly emotional undercurrent afflicting the future King, and it’s a powerhouse performance. Most of the rest of the cast is enjoyable but little more – Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon is there for little more than gentle comedic value, Derek Jacobi is amusing as the conniving Archbishop Cosmo Lang, but little more than a caricature, whilst the aforementioned Pearce is downright miscast as the hapless Edward VIII, who plays Firth’s playboy brother as little more than a party-loving dandy.
To its credit the film focuses on the relationship between Bertie and Logue, and it’s a brilliant partnership, one of the best I’ve seen in film – Logue uninterested in bowing and scraping to a man born into (and who can only comprehend) privilege, with his royal counterpart torn between the life he was groomed for and his inability to cope emotionally with it. The ups and downs they face together say a great deal about their characters, but screenwriter David Seidler also uses them to convey the changes racing ahead in society around them. What is the need for the stiff-upper-lip royalty in an increasingly modern world, where even his brother is more interested in marrying for love than for duty? As history accelerates and Bertie’s accession to the throne becomes ever more likely, we see him confronting the effects his brother’s bullying and his parents’ disinterest in him had on him. It’s a highly contemporary story, which lifts the production from being a mere period drama, and Firth above all gets it.
It’s not a perfect film by any means. The formula comes straight from Working Title, the liberties taken with history are a disappointment, but Firth’s George VI is one of the all-time-great royal performances in screen history. At once he embodies a man utterly unknowable but at the same time deeply sympathetic, but he wouldn’t have been half as interesting or as enjoyable without Rush as Logue – a failed actor pushing against Britain’s class system, yet eager to be accepted by it. It’s to his enormous credit that he keeps those issues in balance with at least an equal humour and intelligence to Firth’s. Their final, make-or-break collaboration – managing Bertie’s first wartime address to the nation – is a sheer delight which will get you cheering in your seat. Rush almost actually conducts the anxious King’s speech, but this subtext shouldn’t be a surprise – director Tom Hooper shoots the entire film with enormous sensitivity to the power of set design and cinematography.
With its clever script, smart direction and sharp design, ‘The King’s Speech’ deserves a whole slew of awards; above all it’s inconceivable that Firth won’t walk away with a long-deserved Oscar.
Colin Firth may well lose out to Jeff Bridges for the Best Actor Oscar, but make no mistake he richly deserves one here, as a gay British university professor who has to cope with the sudden death of his long-term boyfriend in 1960s America. In a society still deeply homophobic, he must remain stoic and professional, and cope invisibly with the crushing pain and loneliness from losing his soulmate. And Firth’s depiction of George’s plight is nothing short of remarkable. From his cold response to the secretive phone call confirming Jim’s (Matthew Goode) death, to his very private tears and subsequent soundless breakdown with his best friend (Julianne Moore), George’s grief is never anything short of devastatingly believable. This may all sound terribly depressing, but screenwriter/director Tom Ford manages to make the film a very rich, emotional story about love, and gay love at that.
George wanders through his now emotionally cold existence with a cool detachment, which Ford details for us with a subdued colour palette, lighting up when human warmth crosses his path. The neighbour’s daughter, the Spanish hustler or just the sunset – George is given multiple reasons to go on, yet he continues his race towards death, unable to engage with the world without Jim. His emotional coldness briefly unravels with his fag hag Julianne Moore (vamping it up as a proto-Patsy – fun, but the weakest link in an otherwise powerful film), but it’s only with the arrival of student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult, sporting a remarkable American accent) that his rush towards death is truly halted. Hoult is even prettier than during his run in ‘Skins’, and is more than a match for Firth’s George. Without treading on Jim’s metaphorical toes, Kenny makes George feel again, and the sheer sensuousness of their burgeoning love affair is breathtaking, largely through never being consummated.
Ford’s attention to detail adds a level of depth which makes this film truly great – from the set design to the costumes, through to the score, every facet of George’s world is painted with love and precision. That some of Ford’s visual trickery isn’t as effective as the rest of the movie is a small criticism – pretty much all of it allows the film to pack a disproportionately powerful punch. ‘A Single Man’ may not in itself be a political film about gay rights, but it is a very effective criticism of gay invisibility. Some have said it is a film which simply addresses universal truths about love, but I agree when David Cox points out that it’s very much a gay film, but addressed at everyone. And in that it’s inordinately successful.
Director Oliver Parker’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ succeeds neither in shocking, nor in offending; it also fails to say anything particularly interesting about the nature of morality. Whilst it’s superficially entertaining and never really gets anything wrong, it sidesteps all the issues which make Wilde’s premise so interesting. The beautiful and powerful Gray (Ben Barnes) is encouraged by self-styled mentor Lord Wotton (Colin Firth) to rebel against the sexual constraints of late Victorian society. And one day, whilst sitting for admiring painter Ben Chaplin, he also unwittingly sells his soul to an unseen devil. The picture then withers, decays and degenerates, whilst Gray remains forever young, his soul trapped inside the picture. It’s a great prism through which to contrast that century’s priorities with today’s obsession with youth and beauty, but it’s also a great morality play – ahead of its time – with which to contrast Victorian English life, and today’s sexually liberated morals.
And yet it never quite works. Gray’s debauchery exposes the darker and unfulfilled yearnings sitting under the surface in Victorian England. He isn’t afraid to sleep with the young, the old, with both women and men – he casts them aside and ignores the consequences, as he embraces the self at all costs. This is no stretch for the insanely beautiful Barnes, but he’s all doe-eyed when asked to show anything other than lust; chalk it down to inexperience, but he’s simply not up to a deeper look at his character or the film’s issues. You get the sense too that Parker is also out of his depth – the opportunity to contrast Victorian morals with modern ones is missed – orgies and gay sex rarely shock these days, and Gray’s permanent youth and beauty would shock in either age, yet Parker and screenwriter Toby Finlay play up the gothic horror undertones instead. It’s a character study which never really studies the character and a timeless morality play about the consequences of our behaviour, but noone seems to have noticed.
The film does have significant merits – chiefly Colin Firth as Lord Wotton, who as Gray’s mentor, encourages the young beauty to embrace his life of hedonism. In contrast with the disappointing, one-note performance by Barnes, Firth gives a barnstorming performance as the powerful socialite who, unlike his protegé, never really practices what he preaches, and can age and does change. Firth is clearly aware of his character’s role in defining his co-star’s and does everything in his power to overcome the limitations of the direction and script. The later scenes between him and Barnes are particularly impressive when the seemingly immortal Gray embarks on a relationship with Wotton’s daughter Emily (Rebecca Hall), forcing Wotton (and later Gray) to choose between his morals and his desires. If only the film as a whole had had such insight. There could have been an element of quite incisive social commentary; without it the film is never much more than an amusing and quite familiar romp within the confines of gentle horror. It’s entertaining but never really satisfies.