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John Farr

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Thoughts on The King's Speech, and Other Royal Entries

Posted: 01/23/2011 2:35 pm

The King's Speech is bound to be nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, and though I don't think it has much chance of winning (my hunch is the top prize will go to The Social Network), I fervently hope Speech does prevail.

Rather than go into the reasoning behind my predictions -- a futile exercise since the ways of the Academy are ever mysterious and often wrong-headed, let me enumerate why I favor this film.

Notwithstanding Colin Firth's astonishing performance (I believe he will get Best Actor -- or damn well should), the film's genius lies in its being -- with no apology necessary -- a decidedly old-fashioned kind of picture. No breathless, whiz-bang effects, no intrusive camera angles, mood lighting, or torrid sex scenes. Just a terrific story, well told.

What a breath of fresh air, cinematically speaking.

Up to now, the affecting tale of King George VI's stammer has not been widely disseminated, most likely because his daughter still sits on the English throne, and would hardly be receptive to her father's speech impediment becoming the stuff of public drama on screen, as it did in real life all those many years ago.

Word is that the Queen indeed is not happy about the film; it's likely she's still recovering from Helen Mirren's uncanny portrayal of her several years back. I can't say I blame her.

But as the world goes, so does the English monarchy. Fueled by technology, a gradual coarsening of social conventions, and an ever more ravenous media, even the most intimate secrets held at the highest levels are now fair game for public consumption. And the House of Windsor most certainly does not get a pass.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The very concept of royalty has always bewitched and fascinated us common folk in America, who grew up, after all, in a democracy, with no Kings or Queens, Lords or Ladies, only the occasional Robber Baron, and of course, Duke Wayne.

From a safe remove, it's only natural that we have taken particular interest in the English monarchy, the titular rulers of that once great empire with whom we (supposedly) share a common language, and (most certainly) a great deal of history.

And we have the movies to prove it. Here is just a sampling of my favorite titles which concern the venerable throne of England, past and present.

The Private Life Of Henry VIII (1933) -- In this cheeky look at the controversial life and loves of King Henry VIII, Charles Laughton portrays the over-indulgent monarch, who challenged church doctrine by marrying not once but six times. From Anne Boleyn to Anne of Cleves, Henry proves himself to be a haughty conqueror of women, and quite enamored of his power-at least until he meets his match. Henry VIII's unusual life has been covered in many films, but this lavish early depiction has its own magic, primarily owing to Laughton's dynamic, Oscar-winning portrayal, in a role he was born to play. Laughton is ably supported by a dashing Robert Donat as Henry's cuckolding subject, and the dark and stunning Merle Oberon as the endearingly dim-witted Boleyn. An early, largely forgotten gem from legendary filmmaker Alexander Korda.

Henry V (1944) -- In the early 15th century, young former profligate Henry (Olivier) ascends the throne of England, then rallies his countrymen in a war with the French for possession of Normandy. Though drastically outnumbered, King Henry proves himself to be an inspiring, capable leader whose victory at Agincourt will land him at the feet of the lovely Princess Katharine (Renée Asherson). Olivier inhabits the role of Henry with dazzling gusto in this rousing, energetic adaptation of Shakespeare's play. The world was at war in 1944, and the gifted actor/director hoped the Bard's climactic tale of beat-the-odds triumph would comfort and inspire embattled England. Filling shoes once meant for William Wyler, Olivier's direction of his actors and the Technicolor battle scenes is sharp and inspired. The movie's stylized opening in a re-created Globe Theater eventually gives way to beautifully scenic realism, an ingenious blend of theater and cinema that helped win Olivier a special Oscar for "outstanding achievement."

Becket (1964) -- Hoping to secure his power in 12th-century England, profligate Norman King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) nominates his Saxon soul mate and partner-in-decadence Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) to be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately for Henry, despite Becket's own advance warning, his friend assumes the ecclesiastical office, then takes his role as spiritual minister very seriously. Based on the historical play by Jean Anouilh, Peter Glenville's exquisite costume drama about the rift between a king and his one true mortal friend earned Best Actor nods for both of its electrifying leads. O'Toole practically bursts off the screen, loudly agonizing about his split with Becket, venomously lashing out at his shrewish wife and mother, and cathartically baring his broken heart at a momentous encounter on the beach. Burton, by contrast, is thoughtful and taciturn, nobly donning the robes of an office he intends to legitimize for "God's honor." Lustily acted and grandly realized, Becket is a mega-watt production worthy of any king.

A Man For All Seasons (1966) -- When the Pope refuses King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) an annulment of his marriage to a barren wife, Henry declares a break with Rome, nominates himself spiritual regent of the newly christened Church of England, and demands that his Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), recognize him. With his allegiance divided between the throne and the Catholic Church, More demurs, until circumstances force him to make a definitive choice. An outstanding adaptation of Robert Bolt's play by High Noon director Fred Zinnemann, Seasons revisits the ill-fated conflict between Henry VIII and More, building upon the film's central ethical issue: Whether the principled More will sacrifice his life in defense of moral truth. In his first starring film role, Scofield won an Oscar for his shaded portrayal of More, and Shaw was also nominated for his magnificent turn as a fiery young Henry. Cameos by Orson Welles, Susannah York, and Leo McKern round out a sterling cast. A box-office smash in 1966, Seasons will resonate with anyone who's ever had a crisis of conscience.

The Lion In Winter (1968) -- Hoping to retain his grip on power, 12th-century King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) summons his estranged, exiled wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), for a Christmas Eve meeting with their three sons, Richard the Lion-Hearted (Anthony Hopkins), Prince Geoffrey (John Castle), and Prince John (Nigel Terry), to determine who will succeed to the throne. As Henry and Eleanor lock in a vicious battle of words, the remaining family members-including Henry's mistress Alais (Jane Merrow) and her teenage brother King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton)-try to outmaneuver each other in their quest for dominance. Shot on location in France and the British Isles, Lion is a wit-fueled, magnificently acted parable of power-lust and extreme family dysfunction. O'Toole and Oscar winner Hepburn are superb as the grizzled, sarcastic regent and his cunning wife, locked in a never-ending exchange of venomous criticisms. A youthful Hopkins, in a spirited turn, pops off some of the best insults. Director Anthony Harvey injects period flavor with authentic costumes and gloomy, tone-perfect settings. When this "Lion" roars, you'll be hooked.

Henry V (1989) -- When a flap-up with King Charles of France (Paul Scofield) escalates into full-blown war, England's hotheaded soldier-king Henry V (Kenneth Branagh) assembles an army to invade the Gallic homeland. Drastically outnumbered, Henry rallies courage and leads his men to victory at the Battle of Agincourt, all the while wooing France's comely Princess Katherine (Emma Thompson). With this exceptional adaptation of Shakespeare's finest historical play, English upstart Kenneth Branagh proved himself worthy of the heights set by Sir Laurence Olivier, whose own 1944 production still shines. Branagh updates the look and feel of the Bard's drama for modern film-going audiences, making Prince Hal a ferocious, charismatic hero of the battlefield, and giving his mud- and blood-soaked war scenes a visceral punch. Plus, how can you argue with a cast that includes luminaries like Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Derek Jacobi, and a who's who of British theater?

Mrs. Brown (1997) -- With the premature death of her beloved husband Prince Albert in the 1860s, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has withdrawn from her subjects into a period of mourning and seclusion. A Scottish stable worker named John Brown (Billy Connolly), whom Albert had admired, is summoned to the Queen's service. Brown's common-sense directness and strength draw her out, and literally and figuratively, place the Queen back on her horse. Mrs. Brown beautifully recounts one of the most unconventional, unlikely romances in history. The close and affectionate friendship that grows between Victoria and lower-class Highlander Brown scandalized Britain then, and will fascinate audiences now. Judi Dench is glorious to watch in a role that gilded her path to Hollywood, and brilliant comic Connolly shows he can act with the best.

The Queen (2006) -- In 1997, after the tragic death of Princess Diana, emotionally reserved Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and the Windsor family struggle with growing pressure from newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and a grief-stricken public to offer some official display of mourning. While the family's natural inclination is to bear their grief stoically and in silence, this only exacerbates the feeling that the Royals are increasingly out of step with their subjects. Stephen Frears's wry, compelling docudrama follows a young Prime Minister's strenuous efforts to help the Windsors avert a major PR disaster in the wake of Diana's fatal car accident. Oscar winner Mirren, whose uncanny channeling of Elizabeth's stiff-upper-lip airs is one of recent cinema's grandest performances, flawlessly captures the Queen's eerie old-world reticence. But she also makes her a sympathetic, even intriguing figure. By turns tense and touching, and consistently engrossing, by all means bow down to The Queen.

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