Savaging two Colin Firth movies for the price of . . .

Why I've avoided The King's Speech. Until now.

More than a year after seeing it, I remain so thoroughly appalled by the memory of Tom Ford’s gay victimhood hatchet job on the Isherwood novella A Single Man that I cannot forgive Colin Firth for his participation in the Ford debacle. As the lead actor, Firth ought to have had acquaintance enough with the source material to raise objections to Ford’s gutting of the author’s intent. Firth, however, went along for the whitewash.

Let’s see if I can remember, without recourse to the notes I took for an unwritten review, some of the reasons why A Single Man stood not only as the most loathsome movie of 2009, but very likely as the most incompetent literary adaptation of all-time.

To begin with, as I finished reading the book the night before I attended a press screening, I thought, “This is unfilmable.” Isherwood’s interior creation would require someone with a powerful visual imagination—or perhaps a radio dramatist—to translate the work from the mind to the collective experience. It seemed unlikely that a fashion plate turned first-time filmmaker would have such dexterity, yet as long as Ford was faithful to the events of the novella, the movie might still be sufficiently compelling. Except that Ford wasn’t faithful at all. He cheapened and degraded and trashed Isherwood, emptying the book of any idea or recognizable human feeling that it contained. Ford’s Single Man opined for the era of televised cigarette commercials; it comported itself with all the gusto of soft-core gay porn, a dumbing-down for well-dressed illiterates with a hard-on for their own consumerism.

Isherwood’s novella had two Asian characters. Surely there were at least two Asian Americans in southern California of the early 1960s. Ford omitted one of these and cast a blonde white as the other. He did away with most of the work’s site specificity and eliminated all of the novelist’s environmental concerns that related to a constantly expanding Los Angeles. (George, the protagonist, mourned the loss of the landscape to sub-divisions; Ford, one senses, would have gone out for drinks with the developers.) The novice writer-director turned Isherwood’s meticulously drawn, deliberately ambiguous supporting character Kenny into a totally obvious fag in angora. At the end of the book, George, played in the film by the overrated Colin Firth, dies in his sleep sans warning. Ford grafted onto the narrative an insulting deus ex machina in which George carried around a revolver all day, intent on committing suicide, but then perishes of a heart attack ere he can squeeze the trigger. Whew, the audience didn’t have to think for itself! If Ford’s liberties with the text weren’t straight out of the Donald Kaufman School of Acme Screenwriting, then what would’ve been?

Even more offensive than all of the above, however, was Ford’s meretricious falsification of a key moment between George and one of the male relatives of his much younger lover. An uncle of the boy telephones George to break the news that the young man has died in an accident; the caller extends to George sympathy for their shared loss and an invitation to the funeral at the family’s home in the Midwest. George refuses to make the trip. Ford re-writes this scene, standing this pivotal interaction on its head. Believing that he somehow knows more than Isherwood, Ford travesties the uncle into a homophobe who makes it clear that George isn’t to attend the funeral; in turn, George transforms from a man with a mind of his own into a pitiable victim. We’re meant to feel the sting of his trumped-up dejection at the hands of some horrible heterosexual monster.

I winced as the scene unfolded in the dark. This was no liberty—this was an outrage. I got a sense of Isherwood spinning in his grave, and of Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar dying in vain on Brokeback Mountain. With this crucial undermining, this vandalization, Ford, a gay man, was more or less telling all gay men to rejoice in their victimhood, real or imagined, as some sort of sickening proof of superiority. Thus the director’s mistrust of life experience transmogrified a cranky, individual literary work into a smooth, bland ghetto movie that functioned to reinforce the smug, neurotic fantasies of the art-house audience.

To digress just a bit more before getting to The King’s Speech, I thought that Ford ought to do more listening and less talking. He ought to pay closer heed to the gay elders of the tribe whom he supposedly venerates. A quote from the late paleobotanist Wes Wehr seems particularly germane: when pressed by an interviewer in 2002 to out the painters he befriended in the 1940s, Wehr responded, “We live in an age of stupid categories. They take away the uniqueness of human closeness. Such labels take us away from further understanding.”

And throughout Ford’s telegraphed incomprehension strolled Colin Firth, gathering accolades (a Volpi Cup, an Oscar nom) for doing nothing. Firth had to inhale and exhale, it’s true; to wear a suit that looked awfully creased as George’s angst-full day expired into a lunatic cat-and-mouse sexual tease by night with his fuzzily attired student. Firth gave the kind of non-performance that might have seemed the safest way out of such a vacuous script. While he may not have perpetrated the banalities of Ford’s mal-adaptation, Firth emblemized them.

A year later, Firth is again nominated for best actor for more Oscar-cadging schlock from the Weinsteins. Readers will fathom why I warded off all those well-meaning recommendations by friends and family for the comparatively harmless King’s Speech. I was determined not to watch this movie. Then someone gifted me a screener for a day, and I acquiesced.

Almost totally formulaic, The King’s Speech eschews psychological complexity in favor of ersatz feel good-ism. The film opens with numbingly repetitive, New Age-y solo piano music that is utterly inauthentic and period-inappropriate for the 1925-1939 span that the actors cover. And not British either. There’s no feel for authenticity beyond the seen costumes and props. Why not spin a British composer from that era? There were several! The unaccompanied solo piano works (some of them) of Sir Arnold Bax might have provided compelling undercurrents. Also, Lennox Berkeley, Ralph Vaughan Williams, perhaps Michael Tippett? I know I’m mixing up generations a bit, if only to suggest how easy it would have been to advance from the generic, piddling electronica dished up by the tired Frenchman Alexandre Desplat.

The speech lessons begin between therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and the stammering future monarch George VI (Firth), and here, if not prior, one becomes aware that in spite of this being an English production a Hollywood conception has been retro-fitted on the historical material. It’s a set-up of coma-inducing familiarity: These two results-driven, multi-tasking cast-offs from different paths of life against all odds—and what odds—will make each other winning team players ere the fade-out. Narrative arcs like these tend to deaden one’s interest in movies. There are the usual reversals and doubts, the fallings-out and re-unitings in the nick of time that are endemic to this genre.

It isn’t all for naught. Helena Bonham-Carter (as the Queen Mum) has a pellucid triumph with Rush early on, meeting with him under the pretense of being a commoner, then unraveling slowly her true identity as a royal. It’s proof that she still has it as an actress, that her unfortunate decade in Tim Burton movies hasn’t dulled her. And Rush, minus an awkward moment of him bombing in an audition as Richard III, does the calmest, most incisive work of his career. Gone are the fussy, flighty, bird-flapping mannerisms that have defined his often overbearing approach. Rush hems himself in as the soft-spoken Logue, and the effect is liberating.

The film perks up some in the first extended scene of Logue and Bertie, then merely the Duke of York, alone together at the therapist’s office, the balance of control out of Bertie’s reach. Firth looks pinned against the wall, a wall designed in post-apocalyptic green, orange, and yellow: begrimed, smudgy shades in kaleidoscopic tatters. The lighting throughout The King’s Speech is the coldest I can recall seeing in any photographic medium. Shot in a pinching blue haze that makes the interiors look chillier than the iced-over Montreal of Altman’s Quintet, the movie had me huddled under eiderdown. I could positively feel the mercury dropping to zero, hovering there, then dropping below. Later, when Logue waits (and waits) for the King in a narrow hallway, the walls of which are painted Easter egg blue, the cinematographer’s bone-chilling hues lend a corpse-like sheen to the proceedings. It is as if the movie were oxygen-deprived.

Because there’s nothing idiosyncratic in the mise en scène (I’m not even going to name the director and the scenarist, save to note that they are two separate persons), The King’s Speech lives or dies by what the actors bring to it. I wanted to take a large flyswatter to Derek Jacobi’s gnomic old hypocrite of an Archbishop; Timothy Spall is a walrus-faced disaster as Winston Churchill; and I didn’t for a minute believe Guy Pearce’s crying jag (as King Edward) at his father’s deathbed. The role of the abdicating Edward is so shallowly conceived that all Pearce can do is to look stylish whilst smoking cigarettes. Nervously sympathetic before he ascends to the throne, Edward becomes a jerky straw villain when the movie needs someone to make Bertie look noble by comparison. Ridiculing Bertie’s speech impediment as the brothers stride the Balmoral cellar in search of champagne, Edward cavalierly retorts, re Nazism’s rising threat to European affairs, “Herr Hitler will sort them out!” This rings false; it’s too facile even for a pro-Nazi sympathizer. The writing and the staging fail to do justice to Edward’s scheming careerism.

Mercifully, there’s Jennifer Ehle, the genuine article, as Logue’s modest, understated wife. Ehle has the gift of not appearing to try—she simply is. Michael Gambon’s King George V isn’t around long, yet with what accuracy Gambon personifies an abusive, nightmarish patriarch. This old terror lets us see how his left-handed son got to be so cowed and timid in the first place, and why Bertie’s voice remains so strangled well into adulthood, a point underscored by a close-up of Firth’s mouth as Bertie repeats, “Father, father, father,” in an elocution lesson.

Bertie’s anger, the rage of the abused child grown into a loveless adult, the movie never addresses, not even when that rage rises to the surface, making Bertie momentarily eloquent and stammer-free. He shouts in angry bursts fluently—why doesn’t Logue get Bertie to channel that? Logue, of course, like a rare good therapist, uses and manipulates those flashes of rage to productive provocation, yet the moviemakers’ reluctance to be more exploratory in familial cause and effect is kind of a dodge.

What about Firth? Well, is he the best that the film industry can muster? I took 2010 off from movies (I don’t expect to go back on them), seeing only two films theatrically: Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and Woody Allen’s poisonous failure You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Surely there were better leading men out there—unless there weren’t. Firth shouts capably. He gets anger. But who doesn’t? In his one fine moment, the moment when he ceases to be Colin Firth, Bertie mourns for his brother Johnny who died in childhood. Mostly, Firth alternates between over-acting and being a non-entity. Someone in the New York Times, obviously filling out column space, wrote that the violent Black Swan represents the sort of ballet film our culture deserves. I disagree. I would think that such a designation more rightly belongs to Robert Altman’s The Company, a work that I initially panned, but which becomes an increasingly richer experience on repeat viewings. By a similar token, in an era when those “in charge” can’t discern between bad performances and less bad ones, the mere notion that Colin Firth and the now-cartoonish Jeff Bridges are somehow the prize-winners would indicate that anyone who’s abdicated all this crap has chosen well. – NPT

February 22, 2011