Thursday, September 10, 2015

Birthday Take: Colin Firth in "The King's Speech" (2010)

Colin Firth in The King's Speech
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Colin Firth
Born: September 10, 1960 (55 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor (won) for The King's Speech as King George VI

The Take

There's plenty of controversy surrounding the 2010 Oscars in which The King's Speech beat The Social Network. For many, it was the strongest indicator of The Academy's progression of old age. Whereas most saw the Facebook movie as more indicative of the modern era, the voters went with a film that captured something more universal: finding your voice. It's actually the start of the past few years focusing on media and the arts in various capacities. Whether or not it was intentional is up for debate. However, it does make some sense what would make this period piece a little more exciting beyond the point that it was an older person film and that for what it's worth, The Social Network was "too edgy."

I will state up front that I consider The King's Speech inferior, but I do think that there's something present in the film that the other was lacking: a dynamical performance. There needed to be something to latch onto. At the center there was Firth, who turned in a performance far more iconic than Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg. Yes, the script was arguably better (that's why Aaron Sorkin won), but it's easier to recall Firth's performance when immediately walking out. He is the sympathetic underdog who cannot speak correctly. He longs to be able to lead a country and do it with precision. It's why the final monologue gives an impact. It is about overcoming struggles to make a difference. 

Meanwhile, everything before resonates because we're convinced of that speech impediment. Yes, the main plot of the movie revolves around King George VI taking voice lessons. It isn't as polished as we'd like to remember. There's stuttering and the words trickle out. There's a lack of confidence to Firth. Maybe the surrounding plot isn't as immediately meaty, but to witness Firth interact with Geoffrey Rush as the teacher is to witness a certain level of British wit on display. There's the encouragement that makes the changing tides of the film work so well. Yes, it may be more conventional to David Fincher's cutting edge film, but that was more cynical and likely wouldn't appeal to voters. For what it's worth, The Academy rewards films that have universal appeal. To some extent, that's The King's Speech in a nut shell.

True, there's been plenty of history that separates the best films from the inferior. I still think that the film's sole credit should go to Firth, who steals the show. He is the master of the impediment and gives a performance that makes us understand how important it is to speak. We want to shake him and help him unleash that voice. However, we're helpless. It's the beauty of the role. By the end, he isn't cured, but he is in far more of a better place. This is the story of triumph that The Academy loves. It is what the award seems to occasionally divulge into. Is this a problem? Only if you consider The Academy's crisis with appealing to young viewers. In that case, there's no greater irony than The Social Network losing.

Yet, I think that time will soften the edges and maybe people will not be so mad. After all, to have The Social Network nominated is an achievement unto itself. But I do think that in time, The King's Speech will be that one film that gets its fair shake. If nothing else, it will hopefully keep its praise for Firth, who manages to control every frame, even if he doesn't have it. Considering that director Tom Hooper is back in the hot seat this Fall with The Danish Girl, one can hope that he has more tricks up his sleeve. For now, we can look to this film and see what a well made British film looks like and how a singular performance can impact the overall quality of a film.

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