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Issue #1487      2  February 2011

Film reviews by Peter Mac

The King’s Speech and Black Swan

Two very different films

These two films make an intriguing comparison. Both are concerned with disability, and both depict a climactic and crucially important performance as part of the story. Both offer excellent acting from their stars. For dramatic effect both are filmed in very subdued colour, often verging on film noir monochrome. But there the similarities end.

Black Swan traces the cast selection, rehearsals and opening performance of a New York production of Swan Lake. Ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a sensitive, ambitious perfectionist, struggles to overcome sexual exploitation and vicious rivalry. She also battles mental instability, involving self-harm and gory hallucinations, while fending off the suffocating affections of her doting mother (Barbara Hershey).

Natalie Portman in Black Swan.

Selection for the top ballerina roles depends on candidates satisfying the sexual demands of the odious director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel). Lisa rejects his advances, but nevertheless wins the prima Swan Queen role, which requires performing as both the virginal white swan and the sensual but sinister black swan.

Nina finds a sympathiser in Lili (Mila Kunis), a new arrival, who persuades her to go out on the town and later seduces her in a particularly off-putting scene of oral sex. Nina awakes late and nearly misses the first orchestral rehearsal. She concludes that Lili, who is ideal for the role of the black swan (Nina is not), is out to replace her at any cost.

On opening night Nina’s mother tries to prevent her attending, after notifying the director that she is ill. Nina breaks free, reaching the theatre just in time. However, after a disastrous first act she finds Lili in her dressing room, preparing to take over the Black Swan role. They fight. Lili is pierced by a shard from a broken mirror and dies – or so Nina thinks. She hides the body, goes on stage and performs ecstatically as both the white and black swans to tremendous applause.

Her victory is brief, however, because she herself has been injured by the broken glass, and she expires, hidden from the view of the madly applauding audience and muttering, “I was perfect”.

Alas, far from prefect

The producers appear to be unaware that “Gloom incessant palls the sense” (to misquote WS Gilbert), and that horror thrillers need touches of warmth, some evidence of affection “and a few laughs” (as Alfred Hitchcock observed).

These qualities are rarely evident in Black Swan, and the story’s potential for a tremendous film has been squandered. Each scene seems full of threat. Comradeship between the dancers rarely surfaces in the film, while sexual exploitation and vile verbal abuse seem to be accepted as the unquestioned norm.

The film has certainly made handsome profits since its release – after all, with lots of gratuitous sex and violence you can hardly go wrong. But it’s not just the grasping profit motive that has brought this film down. Its negativity, alienation and pervading sense of defeat seem to mirror the mood of its country of origin, in a period of imperial decline.

Black Swan is certainly gripping and in many respects very cleverly made, and Ms Portman and others certainly deserve high praise for their performances. But these redeeming features are not enough to rescue this chilling and humourless movie.

The King’s Speech is a different matter altogether. The film’s title refers not only to King George VI’s (Colin Firth) manner of speech, particularly his appalling stutter, but also to his crucial speech at the beginning of World War II.

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech.

Until recently, the King’s Australian speech therapist Dr Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) was virtually unknown. The King managed well enough among family and friends, but in moments of stress, or when asked to read written material or make a public speech, his disability overcame him.

The film depicts the excruciating attempt by the Prince (as he then was) to address a huge audience at the opening of the new Wembley Stadium in 1925.

By the 1920s the Royal Family found themselves forced to use public address systems to address the masses. As one of them stated resentfully: “Previously, we only had to stand on a balcony and wave”. The ability to make public speeches thus became part of the Royals’ job description, but the prince was largely excused, in order to avoid a repeat of the Wembley fiasco

Speech therapy was then in its infancy, and there were no established procedures or formal qualifications. Logue started developing his own methods after he began treating Australian soldiers who had returned from the First World War with severe speech impediments.

The music of speech

In the film, George V dies, and after hearing of Logue’s professional success, the Prince’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter) later the Queen Mother, visits his dingy rooms in Harley Street, introducing herself as “Mrs Johnson”. She is astonished that he insists on treatment for her husband at his rooms. “My castle, my rules,” he says with a smile.

When the Prince reluctantly attends, Logue explains that no one is actually born with a speech defect, and that they usually begin at age four or five, in abusive environments. He proceeds to demonstrate that the Prince is physically able to make a speech by giving him a text, placing headphones on his ears and playing Beethoven’s fifth at full blast, while recording the recital. The Prince interprets this as quackery and storms out after a few minutes – but not before Logue gives him the recording disc.

Later, the Prince plays the recording, and in an exquisite scene for the first time he and his wife hear his voice impeccably reciting a passage from Shakespeare.

Translating the recording victory in normal conditions is another thing altogether. The therapy includes sessions in which the Prince has to swear like a trooper or sing, when he begins to stutter. The therapy continues for years, but finally ceases after the Prince and Logue have a row in Hyde Park. The Prince is consumed with worry about social unrest and the rise of fascist Germany, and by the affair between his brother King Edward and American divorcee Wallace Simpson.

When Edward insists on marrying Mrs Simpson he finds to his horror that he must abdicate, after which his brother will become king. The speech therapy resumes with a vengeance.

In fact, the coronation is relatively straightforward, because George has little more to do than say “Yes” when asked whether he will accept the crown. However, the ultimate test soon appears, when it becomes apparent that Britain must go to war with Germany, and that this will require a national address by the King.

Logue helps to organise the King’s speech, which is broadcast by the BBC around the entire British Empire. Logue attends the broadcast, coaching and encouraging the King. After a few terrifying pauses the King gathers confidence, and finally slips the bonds of his terrible disability.

A significant film

The King’s Speech illustrates the terrible burden imposed by the loss or partial loss of fluent speech, which most of us take for granted. It also demonstrates the great work of speech therapists in general, and particularly of Logue, an unsung Australian hero.

The film is also historically significant. Prior to the outbreak of war Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had favoured avoiding war with Germany at all costs, in the hope that Germany would attack the Soviet Union, and that both nations would fight to the point of collapse, allowing other Western nations to walk in and take them over.

The non-aggression pact with Germany changed that, however. Germany attacked France to grab its industrial capacity. When Germany did so, Britain was forced to declare war because of its defence treaty with France.

As a result Chamberlain’s declaration of war was not at all a resounding call to arms. Lord Beaverbrook’s argument that Britain should reach an agreement with Germany, in effect capitulate, had only narrowly been defeated in the cabinet after a titanic battle with Churchill. However, Churchill was not yet Prime Minister, and it was possible that even at that stage (the start of the “phoney war”) Beaverbrook’s defeatist line might have won the day, and the outcome of the war would have been very different.

The King’s war speech was therefore of crucial importance in stiffening the public’s nerve for the coming conflict. Moreover, if the King had had to struggle or even abandon the speech, the effect on public morale would have been disastrous. Logue’s work, and his role in history, is therefore of major importance.

The film is not without faults. Jewish organisations have criticised it as being particularly soft on the King, who is said to have hindered the exit of Jewish people from pre-war Germany. However, it was Edward, not George, who openly admired Hitler and fascism, and who is said to have given German diplomats information that resulted in Germany attacking France through its weakest point, the Ardennes Forest.

The acting by Colin Firth as the King and Geoffrey Rush as Logue is terrific. The King’s Speech is well worth seeing.  

Next article – Free Puerto Rican political prisoner, Oscar Lopez Rivera

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