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The King’s Speech (Best Picture, 2010)

If you ask me, THE KING’S SPEECH is not just the best picture of 2010 but arguably the best film of the past ten years.  It’s inspirational, moving, funny, and uncomfortable by turns.  By the end of the film we are like those listening to the speech of the title, silently willing Bertie to make it through the announcement that England is at war with Germany.

One of the things I like about the film is the gentle but firm touch it has when handling the political upheaval.  Even those not familiar with the problems surrounding Edward VIII and the subsequent crisis of his abdication are quickly aware that he is not really suited to the position created for him by tradition, culture, and world events.  It’s not that he wouldn’t have been able to lead (at least, he was brought up to do so), but that he was fundamentally unsuitable for the time, place, and environment in which he was called upon to lead.  Guy Pearce’s performance is nuanced, which is not always easy to do with a character who is unappealing in fiction and in history.  On the other hand, the world should probably be grateful that Edward VIII was selfish enough to choose Wallis Simpson over his inherited duty.  As a Nazi sympathizer, his kingship would have led the world in a very different direction in the 1930s and 1940s.

The film appeals in great part because of the portrayal of the three main characters.  Bertie (Colin Firth) appeals to us because he is the quintessential reluctant leader, unaware of his own capability to lead and inspire, but forced by circumstance to step up.  Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is a refreshing whiff of common sense.  It’s appropriate that Lionel should be obsessed with Shakespeare, since Lionel speaks truth to power in much the same way that Shakespeare’s fools can.  The Fool can tell the king what he needs to hear rather than what he wants to hear because of his position as a clown.  And third, of course, is Elizabeth, Bertie’s wife, whose unflagging support for and protection of her husband is one of the reasons Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was one of the most popular members of the royal family up to her death at age 101.  It’s nice to see Helena Bonham-Carter in a non-crazy role to remind us that she’s a remarkably gifted actress capable of a variety of character types.

I must finally bring up the brilliant use of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92, Movement 2 in that final scene where Bertie delivers that important speech.  Lionel stands silently before him as a sort of conductor.  The music is sad and grand and full of determination, as is the speech, and the two perfectly fit together in their pacing.  Bertie’s generation, having witnessed the horrors of WWI, were appalled at the idea that Hitler’s government would contemplate another massive conflict.  Many were unwilling to believe it was possible.  The broadcasted speech of George VI, announcing to the nation and the Commonwealth that they were once again at war with Germany was necessarily sad, grand, and full of determination.

The Artist (Best Picture, 2011)

It’s interesting to me that THE ARTIST is classified as a comedy, while actually THE KING’S SPEECH is funnier and yet still considered a drama.  THE ARTIST has comedic moments, certainly, and it’s about actors trying to create comedic films, but I think it’s much closer to a drama.

I kind of wish this project had ended with THE ARTIST – 2011’s films included more than this one love letter to cinema.  Think of HUGO, which also showed the destruction of careers that happened with the introduction of sound, and gloried in the extraordinary imagination of Georges Melies.  Then there was the nod to GONE WITH THE WIND in THE HELP, and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, about the filming of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL.

THE ARTIST and THE KING’S SPEECH may not seem to go that well together at first glance, but they have a lot more in common than one might think.  Both are about a public figure tossed by the waves of circumstance into an arena of sound that he does not understand.  Both are about the end of an era.  Bertie’s life and world changes fundamentally with the abdication of his older brother, while THE ARTIST’s George Valentin is shoved aside by a new technology, exacerbated by his own stubborn refusal to change his approach to work.  Both Bertie and Valentin have to learn to set aside their pride and admit they need someone else’s help to succeed once again.

Maybe it’s the clothing of the era in which their similarly-themed films are set, but I can’t be the only one to notice the striking resemblance between Gene Kelly and Jean Dujardin.  THE ARTIST is the dramatic version of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.  In some ways it is a blend of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and the flashback sections of HUGO, in which Melies’ career collapses and he burns everything associated with his film studio, negatives included.

I’m trained as a librarian, archivist, and historian.  It just about breaks my heart to think of all the films produced in the silent era that were destroyed by inattention or the devastation of this new world of sound.  THE ARTIST has comical moments, for sure, but it should not be classified as a comedy.  At most it’s a “dramedy” but really, it’s a drama with comedic moments.  Just because a film contains a lot of people smiling and dancing in shiny dresses doesn’t mean it’s a comedy.  Just because a film ends with the main characters happy again doesn’t mean it’s a comedy. To be a comedy it needs to be, y’know, funny.  THE ARTIST is a heartbreaker.

Next Up: Argo (Best Picture, 2012)