‘The King’s Speech’ an awards contender

Posted Jan. 13, 2011, at 6:04 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

THE KING’S SPEECH, directed by Tom Hooper, written by David Seidler, 118 minutes, rated R.

God save the competition, because when the Academy announces its picks for this year’s Academy Award nominations, “The King’s Speech” is certain to pass around its crown and collect a devastating share of them.

The movie is that good — it’s one of the best times I’ve had at the movies in months (it opens in area theaters Friday). Working from David Seidler’s script, which balances wit and mischief with the shame and rage one man feels about being saddled with a stammer, director Tom Hooper creates a movie that is at once light and witty — and overwhelmingly dark, sad and claustrophobic.

The film opens in 1925 at the British Empire Exhibition, where King George V’s son, Prince Albert (Colin Firth, primed for his second Best Actor nomination in a row), is about to address not only a packed Wembley Stadium, but also — more terrifying — a microphone that looks something like a bullet. That microphone is poised to cast his voice to a quarter of the world, which for Albert is akin to taking a bullet to the chest.

The prince suffers from a stammer, which makes this address the last thing he wants to do, but royalty have duties and no stammer will stop them from performing them, particularly when your father (Michael Gambon) is the king and demands that you see those duties through.

With trepidation, Albert begins his speech, flop sweat forms, the words get lodged — and disaster occurs. Powerless, he is forced to stand there and struggle with his disability while watching the crowd turn away from him in embarrassment. It’s only his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, well deserving of the nomination she’ll receive), who doesn’t turn her back to him.

In fact, she decides to fully back him.

With appealing pluck, she goes to the newspaper and clips out an advertisement that leads her to one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, reminding us why he matters in the film’s third performance that will enjoy a nomination).

Logue is a speech therapist who uses some rather unconventional methods to cure his clients of their stammer. Since Elizabeth wants to be treated as a commoner so she can have a complete idea of what Logue is like, she introduces herself as “Mrs. Johnson,” who is there because her husband needs help with his stutter. The dynamic that forms between them is a treat. Since Lionel has no idea that he’s dealing with royalty, the casual way he treats her is a jolt to audiences, but amusing to Elizabeth.

Sold on Logue, she brings along Albert, who Lionel recognizes at once. In that moment, the room seems to shrink around him. But Lionel is nothing if not real, and soon he’s over being star struck. He tells Albert that this is his castle and if they are going to work together, it will be by his rules.

Given that Albert is second in line to the crown, you can imagine how that directive goes over, but soon they’re working together and making progress, until Albert’s father dies, his older brother (Guy Pierce) becomes King Edward VIII and then throws it all away to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). In a quick turn of events, Albert is suddenly King George VI, and thus placed in the unwanted position of being put front and center. With World War II building, the pressure he feels as king is enormous, which makes his stutter worse. Since the church and the royal court want nothing to do with Lionel, they toss him out. And what does that mean for Albert, who must face his public on the eve of war, just when they need to hear him and his words most?

What ensues is engrossing for a host of reasons, the first being the terrific acting ensemble. Firth, Rush and Carter are a force onscreen. While Rush and Carter often steal the movie’s lighter moments, it’s Firth who must carry the film’s weight and convey what it must be like to suffer from a stutter.

Watching his struggle is like watching a master class in acting. For those who have ever suffered from a stutter, as I once did, you can fully appreciate the humiliation and rage the crosses Firth’s face in caustic waves as he tries to force the words out. He is nothing short of riveting, he nails Albert’s plight in all its complexities, and it’s for this reason that Firth is a major threat to win the Academy Award. Grade: A

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On DVD and Blu-ray Disc

THE SOCIAL NETWORK, directed by David Fincher, written by Aaron Sorkin, 120 minutes, rated PG-13.

We don’t talk much anymore, but we certainly do “like.” And we “share,” though not necessarily face-to-face. We’re fans and we’re friends, even if we’ve never met some of our 800 “friends.” For many (they’ll tell you otherwise), this is a game of numbers, baby. The more “friends” we have, the more self-esteem we have, the better we are and thus the easier it is to sleep at night on that pillow of faux popularity.

Welcome to the world of “The Social Network,” which is the story of Facebook, where many readers likely spend at least some of their time. David Fincher directs from Aaron Sorkin’s script, itself based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires,” and what they’ve captured is a zeitgeist for the times in a movie that exposes not only the makers of Facebook but also, slyly, more than a trace of ourselves.

Have we ever been so isolated and social at once? Have we ever put such an effort into being social? And what about building our own social myths? We like to do that — a lot. Facebook is, after all, about personal myth building. Smile just right for the camera, say something meaningful or witty or provocative on your wall, and become the person you always wanted to be. With a few keystrokes, you’ve positioned yourself with those who matter. You know, your 800 “friends.” And just imagine if they share your thoughts with their friends — that’s money in the bank. You might, after all, get even more “friends” out of it. And, as a result, you’d look more important to those around you.

And what’s better than that? Well, plenty, but that’s for psychologists to figure out.

All of this, of course, is the core of “The Social Network,” a movie that focuses on how a few Harvard students had the genius to tap into the human psyche and realize what they wanted most — recognition and validation. And friends. Many, many friends.

For the founders of Facebook, it was something a little more intense. They wanted power, money, fame and sex, which Sorkin examines in a film that mostly exposes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, dark and excellent and deserving of the Academy Award nomination coming his way), who ruthlessly (sociopathically?) decided that possessing those elements was far more important than having real friends. The irony is staggering.

So beyond Zuckerberg, who created Facebook? As the movie sees it, a handful of people, most significantly twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, exceeding expectations). Parker founded Napster and was screwed to the wall for it. It’s how he greases his way into Mark’s life that at once lifts Facebook into the stratosphere with his contacts and which also makes him lose face to his best friend, Saverin. Again, the irony.

“The Social Network” has an unusually difficult task to pull off — it has to make computer programming exciting — and it does so with aplomb.

Sorkin’s script is one of the film’s stars. It’s consistently smart, tense and witty, particularly in the scenes that take place in the present, when Zuckerberg is being sued by the Winklevi, as he condescendingly calls them, and also by Saverin for a fair cut in a company all were instrumental in creating. The movie is at once light and brisk, but because Zuckerberg is filled with such self-loathing, it also contains bitterness and social ineptitude. In the end, it’s something of a tragedy.

Mark Zuckerberg may have designed a network that has created a virtual storage bin of 500 million people hoarding friends, but after seeing this movie, you have to wonder how many friends he truly can call his own. Grade: A

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Mondays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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