The King’s Speech
I’m not going to say that it was a brilliant marketing move to release The King’s Speech on DVD just before a royal wedding, but if I were Harvey Weinstein, I’d think about giving Bill Windsor and Kate Middleton a percentage of sales, or at least a wicked gift basket. As a republican – that is, someone opposed to the institution of the monarchy in any form, constitutional, absolute or whatever – I can’t help but be amazed at the persistent resonance of a royal wedding, and the apparently bottomless inspiration the British royal family inspires in filmmakers.
There’s no real mystery as to why The King’s Speech was a good movie – the story was more than sufficiently dramatic, even at its most factual essence, before it was trimmed and altered on its way to shooting script. It was also populated by the cream of English (and Australian) acting talent, which seems to work like a charm nowadays, whether you’re making a period film set in the stately rooms of Empire or a quality cable drama about cowboys or zombies.
Don’t underestimate the simple appeal of competence; too many critics felt obliged to point out that nothing about The King’s Speech was particularly groundbreaking, as if that were a real flaw. The vast majority of films can only aspire to mere competence, and in some cases – all of the key performances and especially Danny Cohen’s witty, off-kilter camerawork – The King’s Speech was a perfect example of what talented people working in the service of a solid story can produce.
The DVD release comes with a generous bonus feature menu, including a stalwart featurette on the making of the film and its historical inspiration. The most valuable to me, however, are a radio transcription and newsreel featuring actual speeches by George VI, one of which is the centrepiece of the film’s climax. Colin Firth’s portrayal of the king’s speech defects were, by comparison, underplayed, and the halting delivery of his address to the nation at the declaration of war against Germany is more acutely painful to hear without the visual flair and merciful editing of the film.
Thanks to her last name, Sofia Coppola will probably never get the fair shake she deserves as a director, and for those of us actually charmed by her films – even obvious failures like Marie Antoinette – it’s hard not to consider her the sole viable thread of Coppola talent that looked to have definitively died by the time her father made Jack. Based on her four films so far, it looks like she has no ambition to make The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, which is a good thing, since it’s become increasingly obvious that the only way to do that nowadays is with three or four seasons on subscription cable.
The pleasures we get from Sofia Coppola’s films are small ones; epic scenes with stirring soundtracks and body counts aren’t to be found, and the highlights are inevitably found in scenes with no more than two characters onscreen, few words, and nothing behind them but the noise of the room. Like most of what she’s made, and especially her last three films, Somewhere is about celebrity, and there are admittedly few people with a better claim to in-depth knowledge of that subject. Compared to Somewhere, however, her 2003 hit Lost In Translation seems like one of her father’s epics – louder, more frantic, more densely peopled.
Steven Dorff plays a movie star on the verge of terminal burnout, living in the Chateau Marmont (L.A.’s version of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, and the venerably tatty place where John Belushi overdosed) and marking time between films while his broken arm heals. An unseen personal manager schedules his professional commitments, and he kills the time between them partying, indulgently watching strippers in his room, and piloting his Ferrari around Los Angeles like it’s some vast, overlit and unsatisfying video game.
One of the sly secrets of celebrity is how much of one’s life is comped, from meals to hotel rooms to air travel and clothes, so it’s not surprising that Dorff’s Johnny Marco is sleepwalking through his life – even his sexual encounters seem to arrive at his door in a gift basket with a card, and can be taken for granted so blithely that he falls asleep during them. An extended visitation with his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) after her mother bails out (presumably into rehab) breaks up the monotony, and allows him to see his weird but wildly privileged life with new eyes.
From playing Rock Band in his hotel room with his best friend (Chris Pontius of Jackass fame) to a luxurious but surreal trip through Italy’s cartoonish and celebrity-obsessed media circus, Johnny is allowed to enjoy himself again, even if he has to experience that joy through the eyes of a precocious pre-teen. Coppola also manages to show the giddy friendship that develops between a father and daughter when they’re just beginning to make the transition from girl to woman, a relationship that’s both protective and helpless, and which ultimately leaves Johnny even more bereft when his daughter slips out of his life again.
The only notable special feature is an austere production documentary that portrays the making of the film as clearly far more fun than the story it tells.
Few people probably deserve sympathy more than parents who’ve lost a child, so it’s a rare marvel that Nicole Kidman’s performance in Rabbit Hole as a recently bereaved mother almost completely manages to leach away the sympathy we, as an audience, would only be too happy to give.
At a support group meeting for grieving parents, Kidman unloads on another pair of parents whose desperate search for solace in their faith only inflames her hatred of “the God thing.” She tries to clear away as many traces of her dead son as she can despite her husband’s aching need to preserve the boy’s presence, and antagonizes her mother and sister more, we’re lead to believe, than she did even before their tragedy. Kidman has never been an actress notable for her warmth, so it’s hard to imagine that director John Cameron Mitchell chose her to do anything but test the audience’s tolerance for the character. The moment where Kidman’s character confounds our diminished expectations never comes, however, and the credits roll with an inescapable sensation of having watched a film that exploits more than portrays the pain of grief.