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.
It sure is bleak, which isn’t to say that director John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic road movie (adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s book) isn’t technically brilliant or outstandingly well acted. But ‘The Road’ is so nihilistic, so full of pessimism and dread, with no humour whatsoever, you can’t really call it entertaining or a film you can recommend for a good night out. This isn’t a problem though, because you can’t fault it on its artistic merits – from the washed out colour palette, giving further depth to the lifeless Earth, through to the Hollywood-unfriendly storyline, Joe Penhall’s script is true to itself from start to finish, and even the apparent product placements are true to the book (Coca Cola in particular had initially resisted its inclusion). Viggo Mortensen stars as an unnamed man, guiding his son Kodi Smit-McPhee through a desolate, dead America, with no plant or animal life, and with other humans reduced to violence and cannibalism in order to survive. Facing starvation or a violent death they head to the coast, hoping for something better, using one another to hold on to their sense of morality along the way.
And although the pair have no hope and little chance, they continue to fight for their survival on a planet no longer able to support life, Mortensen holding on to his responsibilities as a father, and Smit-McPhee intuitively believing in the value of being ‘a good guy’. It’s a fascinating character study of morality and fatherhood, in the face of utter hopelessness. And both actors are more than up to the task – Mortensen provides a tower of strength under unthinkable pressure, and Smit-McPhee gives a compelling depiction of hope, compassion and optimism, while the rest of his race descends into savagery. Penhall’s script has them relying on one another to hold on to what they believe in, both supporting and pushing when humanity has given up entirely, and it effectively draws you in. Could the tone have lightened up on occasion? Sure, but Hillcoat admirably never loses his focus from his pair, nor do we lose our compassion for them.
There is some genuinely shocking and mostly underplayed horror, and the stark, mostly on-location visuals add to the feeling of constant dread. The attention to detail of the dead Earth is simultaneously impressive and depressing, and although we never find out what brought about The End of the World, we don’t need to. This is all about Father and Son, showing goodness can prevail under any circumstance. More of a technical achievement than a ‘must see’, ‘The Road’ is nonetheless an impressive film and worthy of your time – just pick the right one.
Every past war film has shown us that war is hell, we know from the news that the war in Iraq is different, terrible and continuously horrific, but ‘The Hurt Locker’ manages to find something unique to say about America’s misadventure in the Middle East. Director Kathryn (‘Point Break’/'Strange Days’) Bigelow’s exhilarating return to form is a truly fascinating look at the psychology of war, and is one of the best written films I’ve seen in a long time. Using a semi-documentary style to follow soldiers Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, she exposes the real effects of not knowing who the enemy is – the local child? The man in the street? The taxi driver? Bigelow doesn’t take the easy, ‘Apocalypse Now’ route or even go all Oliver Stone – instead she uses her steadycam to show how terrifying it is to know that anyone in the street with a mobile phone could be a killer, and what effect this has on even the most well-adjusted male psyche. The three leads exist in a constant, high-tension, ultimate-stakes existence, and Bigelow with screenwriter Mark Boal gives us a compelling contrast of their differing responses to it. In a fair world Oscars would proliferate.
Bomb disposal experts Mackie and Geraghty are still reeling at the death of their leader Guy Pearce, when he’s replaced by Renner. Renner is all affable and intelligent, but where Pearce was all experience and caution, Renner is cocky and reckless. Far from having a death wish though, it becomes quickly clear that this is the only way in which he knows how to operate – from dealing with no.2 Mackie to defusing car bombs he thrives on the all-or-nothing scenario he finds himself in. His team berate him for his attitude, yet we find their ways of dealing with their Iraqi tour aren’t particularly successful – what Renner has become is what the US Army needs. He’s hardly a monster though, and this is where the film is particularly sharp. Unaffected by near-death experiences and suicide bombings, he’s suddenly moved by the seeming death of a child street vendor he’d befriended, but nothing is straightforward, the enemy is only rarely visible in the shadows and alleyways, and playing cowboy yields no results. Bigelow and Boal aren’t preaching politics – they keep showing what effect this constant disorientation has on decent men, and drags us along for their ride. There’s no room for sentimentality, and it makes for a compelling film.
Shot with steadycam in Amman, Jordan and Kuwait, the ring of authenticity constantly abounds, and the only editorialising creeps in in the last 10 minutes, when Renner discovers what we already knew – that far from being battle-scarred, constantly tripping out on near-death experiences in Iraq is where he thrives. It may reinforce his heroism, but emphasises his tragic existence at the same time. A film under no circumstances to be missed.