Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"The 'King' Versus 'The Queen'"

The Oscars Awards Season encourages people – make that requires people – to compare movies within the boundaries of a single calendar year, which results in some years’ “Best Picture” winners being not that terrific, only the best of less than sterling compilation of nominees, which themselves emerge from a less than impressive slate of movies that were produced that year.  (At the loss of clarifying specificity, I will refrain from providing examples of “Best Pictures” I think weren’t that great, for fear that my examples might be the best movie you ever saw in your life.  I hate to lose readers in the first paragraph.  So I will keep my “Stinkeroo List” to myself.)

A strong “Best Picture” contender for the current Awards Season is The King’s Speech.  I saw The King’s Speech.  I thought it was pretty good.  Maybe, “pretty good” plus.  But feeling no obligation to restrict myself to the parameters of “movies made in 2010”, I herein submit that, within the admittedly narrow grouping called “Movies about the recent royal family in England”, The Queen (2006) was considerably superior to The King’s Speech.

Here’s my reasoning on the matter.  I place a lot of value on originality.  The Queen felt like a movie I had never seen before.  On the other hand, The King’s Speech felt like an After School Special, but with better actors.

The Queen had certain built-in advantages.  The story it told was more current.  (1997 as opposed to The King’s Speech’s late 1930’s).  To summarize The Queen’s storyline:  Lady Di dies in a car crash, and a clash of generations ensues, wherein a youthful Prime Minister presses Queen Elizabeth, whose training and upbringing demand no outward displays of emotion, to make a speech to the country, expressing how she feels.  After days of soul-searching, and a visit to Scotland, with duty trumping discomfort, the Queen finally capitulates, and makes the speech. 

That’s a fresh story.  And the way it was handled – the way the narrative unfolded, the nuanced steps depicted to achieve the desired result, sometimes gentle, but firm when necessary – felt real.  Meaning true to life.  And as a result, rich, compelling, humanizing and alive.

By contrast, The King’s Speech followed the well-trod road of the “inspirational affliction narrative”, offering few deviations from the traditional template.  Somebody’s got a problem – in The King’s Speech it’s a terrible stammer but it could be anything – they adamantly refuse to get help, and then they reluctantly give in.  Things go badly at first, but in time, the helper and the helpee surrender to the process, gradually warm to each other, the lessons ultimately take hold, and in the end, there’s a triumphant outcome. 


When you see a story you’ve seen numerous times before, “originality”, by definition, is off the table.  What’s left then is the skill with which the story is related.  In this regard, The King’s Speech does well enough.  But, to me, this is a secondary accomplishment.  An old joke, skillfully delivered. 

There is also the distraction of the teaming pool of magnificent English actors populating The King’s Speech, gifted professionals who can turn a recitation of the Underground stops on the Bakerloo Line into soaring poetry.  Winning performances can fool you.  It’s like,

“This is warmed-over blabbity-blah.  But look how they’re doing it!”

With the understanding that both films are based on historical events, a movie can’t be overly faulted for telling a less interesting story than another movie.  The thing is, they already made The Queen.  Now, they had to make something else.  And I imagine The Queen’s success at the box office actually helped that to come about.

“They liked the ‘queen’ movie.  Let’s give ‘em a ‘king’ movie.”

Were I being pitched The King’s Speech for possible production, my first question would have been, “How do we tell this ‘story of uplift’, so it doesn’t feel like ‘A one-legged runner wins the Boston Marathon’?”

The difference is, though I could be wrong about this, a one-legged runner has never won the Boston Marathon, which places that story smack dab into the “fiction” category.  And unlikely to be made, because who wants to see a fake story about a one-legged runner winning the Boston Marathon?  If it were the Poughkeepsie Marathon, maybe, because you don’t know if that happened or not.  The Boston Marathon, you could look up. 

(You can also look up the Poughkeepsie Marathon, but that movie’s not going to be made, because who cares about Poughkeepsie?  Here it comes.  “Poughkeepsie happens to be my favorite town in the whole wide world!”)

Since the elements involved in The King’s Speech actually took place, there’s not an unlimited amount of wiggle room when it comes to its execution. 

“The king stopped stuttering, gained confidence, flew to Germany, and assassinated Hitler.”

You can’t do that.  It didn’t happen. 

Not that you can’t change anything.  It is a movie, after all. 

The question is, “How far can you go with those changes?”  And how do such decisions affect the integrity of the project?

These, to me, are important questions.  

Deserving, I believe, of a posting of their own.


MikeInTexas said...

There's a least one movie that does take historical liberties with the Boston Marathon: "Saint Ralph", from 2004.

Anonymous said...

"The Kings Speech" felt like it lasted as long as the Boston Marathon

Max Clarke said...

Good analysis, Earl.

My basic problem with movies about the kings and queens is that they're about the kings and queens. In a marathon, they get an automatic 200-yard head start.

They are voyeur-porn, feeding the American desire to know how the royalty lives. Give us a peek into the corridors of power and the rooms of play, we'll watch and admire and vote for your monarchist movie.

Second, they've got the king and queen "brand," which makes anything appear important. A movie about a child who stutters? Maybe interesting. A movie about a king who can't finish a sentence? Important.

Nevertheless, some of my favorites movies are about royalty: A Man For All Seasons was about ideas as much as people. Another favorite, The Lion In Winter, where the royals keep warm in a cold Christmas castle by shooting fireworks at each other.