Tuesday, January 25, 2011

This Familiar Speech Sounds New

Though it's garnering kudos galore from the critics, period drama The King's Speech is anything but uncommon. In fact, most anyone who has frequented a movie theater in the past decade will likely suffer from déjà vu mere minutes in. The plot is as worn as the pair of mud-caked work shoes that sit out on my back porch in rain or shine: The Duke of York (better known as Bertie to his family) struggles to overcome a lifelong stammer with the help of an unorthodox Australian therapist named Lionel Logue. Humiliated by botched attempts at public speaking and mocked by his brother and kingly father, Bertie must also battle his own sense of inferiority. Little does he know that a death and an abdication will thrust him to the head of Britain's royal family, a position where he will be required to speak -- and to strengthen with his words a nation falling under the shadow of Nazi Germany.

You can trace the plot's progression easily enough. Bertie will eventually overcome his handicap to some degree or another, dealing with his demons and newly acquired rank along the way, and develop a fast friendship with Logue as well. So familiar it's boring, right? Only The King's Speech isn't. Yes, the acting is grand, and writer David Seidler infuses the proceedings with plenty of humor. But what I thought made the movie work was director Tom Hooper's deft style. Films where most of the action is bound up in dialogue can become visually dull, each shot standard and quotidian. But Hooper never lets the cinematography get lazy. He favors close-ups with large apetures, dwelling on thin slices of his subjects' faces. He lets important details slip outside the camera's focus, sliding from clarity to fuzziness. He rarely uses the same shot twice, switching to a new angle with almost every cut. This isn't the hyperkinetic style of Slumdog Millionaire or the help-my-optic-nerves-are-burning tricks of Tony Scott's Man on Fire. It's subtle, unobtrustive. But it keeps the audience engaged.

This, of course, is the purpose of style and artistic beauty. It exists not to further itself, but rather the story, the characters, the themes. Such loveliness snares us, draws us in. There is nothing new under the sun. But a bit of loveliness makes even familiar things fresh.

(Picture: CC 2008 by

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