LONDON: ‘The King’s Speech, ‘Neds’ and the Brit pack

Posted by · 11:27 am · October 22nd, 2010

Unlike, say, the Venice fest – where the jury’s failure to reward any of the (lousy) Italian films in competition is cause for a media strop — the London Film Festival has often seemed somewhat embarrassed by the homegrown portion of its programme, perhaps granting a big red-carpet date to the odd bit of tony Oscar bait while shoving newer and/or independent British filmmakers into shadowy side slots.

This year, however, the festival appears to be wearing its flag quite contentedly. This week’s lavish gala screenings have included such big-draw Britpics as “Another Year” and “The King’s Speech” – but rather less predictably, Peter Mullan’s hard bit of Scottish urban realism “Neds” was afforded similar treatment, while tonight’s hot ticket is local TV comedian Richard Ayoade’s Toronto-acclaimed (and Weinstein-acquired) debut “Submarine.” With Joanna Hogg’s bare-bones sophomore feature “Archipelago” also premiering tonight – and unexpectedly shortlisted for the fest’s Best Film award – programmers seem bent on drawing attention to the multitude of approaches in contemporary UK cinema.

With that said, judging from the plentiful laughter and keen applause that greeted yesterday’s press screening of “The King’s Speech” (**), the old Britfilm model is still good enough for most viewers. I wish I could join them, but Tom Hooper’s safe, static and excessively manicured study of George VI’s ascendancy to the throne – a trajectory braided with the overcoming of a critical speech impediment – is the kind of heritage picture that receives maximum reward for taking the minimum number of chances.

Tailored largely for the international audience for whom the internal politics of the Royal Family seem never to lose their mystique or fascination, David Seidler’s original script at least deserves credit for resisting the temptation to self-elevate: the titular, and climactic, speech may be read over a montage of rapt common-or-garden Britons tremulously awaiting the hardships of WWII, but the film rarely pretends to be about anything much more far-reaching than one man’s personal struggle with a manageable disability. But history on film can be intimate without seeming minor, and “The King’s Speech,” with its cosily unbending characterization and emphasis on the physical properties of the spoken word, only manages the first half of that equation.

Essentially an interior-based two-hander between Colin Firth’s stammering monarch-to-be and Geoffrey Rush’s gently dogged speech therapist – if I came to the film cold, I would immediately, but incorrectly, peg it as an adaptation of a stage work – the film winds up following something of a romantic (or bromantic, if you will) comedy structure, as the two men warily suss each other out, fall in love, fight, apologize, and fall in love again. It’s a thin, not unappealing narrative, but it’s more hampered than helped by Hooper’s fussy attempts to render the material cinematic with self-aware shot construction and phonily ennobling musical selections.

If Seidler doesn’t take quite the same salaciously speculative stance on the private lives of its principals that a writer like Peter Morgan might, he weaves into the film a mild-mannered thread of irony that the cast seize upon to enliven otherwise bland characters – rather too enthusiastically in the case of Helena Bonham-Carter’s tetchily mannered Queen Mother. Better news is that, gifted with the film’s most breathable part, Rush is uncharacteristically restrained and engaging, while the Firth, his likable hesitancy as an actor making him the ideal casting choice here, admirably retains the character’s prickly wit even when fully thawed. The Academy could save him a season-long wait (not to mention a small fortune in dry-cleaning bills) by posting him his inevitable statuette now, but while it’s an expert performance, it’s also a palpable one; like the lacquered but, well, over-enunciated film around him, he knows precisely where the audience is sitting.

I’m as guilty as anyone of stuffing corseted fare like “The King’s Speech” onto the “heritage cinema” shelf, but the growing library of working-class memory pieces like Peter Mullan’s electrifyingly messy and feeling-flooded period teen drama “Neds” (***1/2) calls for a re-evaluation of the term: like the best work of Ken Loach, Shane Meadows and, most recently, Andrea Arnold, Mullan’s film taps into a fierce cross-class yearning more integral to the heritage of many a British viewer than most costume dramas given the tag.

Which is a lumpy way of saying that “Neds” (the title is a familiar Scottish slang acronym for “Non-Educated Delinquents”) feels nervily alive, as opposed to reverentially embalmed, in its documentation of a past milieu: in this case, the proudly frayed and gang-patrolled Glasgow council estates of the late 1970s, wherein our teenaged protagonist John McGill (newcomer Conor McCarron, alternately cocksure and wincingly vulnerable) is repeatedly brought to the possibility of self-actualization before sabotaging his own escape.

As the film’s opening reels juxtapose John’s grimly broken home life against his precocious academic promise at a rough government school, we seem headed down a familiar against-all-odds path, but Mullan’s “personal but not autobiographical” script makes excitingly wayward decisions, as John’s needy absorption of gang culture steer the character increasingly far from the plucky hero the audience roots for him to be, the possibility of rehabilitation an ever-growing question mark.

Mullan, meanwhile, undercuts the threat of miserablist nostalgia (complete with mandatory T-Rex soundtrack) with a genuinely unsettling visual sense that sporadically explodes into full-blown surrealist metaphor – director seemingly as enervated and overwhelmed by his reality as protagonist. Not every flourish lands just right on the canvas – a hallucinatory vision of a New Seekers-singing Christ seems meretriciously eccentric rather than organically born of the character’s imagination – but Mullan remains a relentlessly probing filmmaker even on his off beats, and an assured leader of the film’s mighty ensemble (in which he appears as John’s knowingly pitiful alcoholic father). Ribald, risky and scarred with sorrow, “Neds” is the most invigorating British work this year’s festival has yet turned up – whatever the red-carpet vultures might tell you.

→ 29 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

29 responses so far

  • 1 10-22-2010 at 11:34 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Two stars for King’s Speech. Well there’s a different interpretation!

    The flip side: I’d probably go the two-star route on Somewhere, which I saw yesterday.

  • 2 10-22-2010 at 11:45 am

    qwiggles said...

    It’s refreshing to hear someone else who finds Hooper’s much-praised Xavier Dolan-like floating head framing a bit fussy, though I think I liked it better than you overall. Major points begrudgingly granted to the film’s refusal to ‘cure’ him: it was looking an awful lot like an overcoming disability movie until it surprisingly became a *living* with disability movie.

  • 3 10-22-2010 at 12:31 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Also, I find nothing “fussy” about choosing to tell the story, you know, visually.

  • 4 10-22-2010 at 12:39 pm

    Duncan Houst said...

    Well I’m more than a little surprised by this. I absolutely loved “The King’s Speech”, and it was my knowledge that most of the people in the screening I attended did as well. Then again, most of them were very old, and so is the Academy so this film is probably still going to play exceptionally well.

  • 5 10-22-2010 at 12:57 pm

    Graysmith said...

    Gasp! Guy is the Armond White of In Contention! :P

  • 6 10-22-2010 at 1:10 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    No that would probably be Chad.

  • 7 10-22-2010 at 1:39 pm

    Hunter Tremayne said...

    Guy loves films that I hate and hates films that I love. He’s not from Bedford Falls: he’s from Pottersville.

  • 8 10-22-2010 at 1:51 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    ugh, this sounds exactly like what I was afraid The King’s Speech would be. Now I’m pretty certain I won’t like it. I never usually like movies about British royalty anyway. The only film involving a British king that I’ve liked is A Man for All Seasons.
    Also, Guy, you’re too good for this site. Hope someday, some major publication employs you. :D

  • 9 10-22-2010 at 2:07 pm

    JJ1 said...

    It’s so funny how reading one negative review of a movie you’re looking forward to can plant the seed of doubt.

    I still think I’ll enjoy it, if not flat-out love it.

    British royalty movies are my sh*t.

  • 10 10-22-2010 at 3:31 pm

    James D. said...

    I assume I will hate The King’s Speech. It looks like Oscar bait on steroids, really.

  • 11 10-22-2010 at 3:41 pm

    Zack said...

    Am I reading something embarrassingly wrong, Guy, or are you calling Best Actor for Firth?

  • 12 10-22-2010 at 3:41 pm

    Duncan Houst said...

    It’s one bad review, and suddenly everybody (by that I mean James D. and Angry Shark) is geared to hate it. I saw one bad review of “127 Hours”. It shook me a little bit, but it doesn’t make much of a real difference to tell you the truth.

  • 13 10-22-2010 at 3:45 pm

    James D. said...

    Duncan, I hated it from the synopsis and the trailer. Lodge is just confirming my suspicions. I will steal see it and give it a somewhat fair shot.

  • 14 10-22-2010 at 6:58 pm

    Duncan Houst said...

    I believe the word is “still”. Not “steal”.

  • 15 10-22-2010 at 8:25 pm

    JJ1 said...

    A new UK trailer has surfaced.

    Wow, what a difference trailers can make; this new one actually makes me want to see it more than I already do.

  • 16 10-22-2010 at 8:37 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Duncan: Believe me, I know plenty of people my age who responded to the film. It’s not an age thing. I’m just a tricky bastard.

    Zack: Yes, I’m totally calling Best Actor for Firth. In the bag, done deal, etc, etc. I did the same for Jeff Bridges last summer, so I’ve got a good thing going. ;)

  • 17 10-22-2010 at 9:03 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Wait, Guy you called best actor for Jeff Bridges even though no one had seen Crazy Heart and it was uncertain whether the film would even be released in 2009?

  • 18 10-22-2010 at 9:08 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I did indeed.

  • 19 10-22-2010 at 9:10 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Can you pick NFL football games against the spread?

  • 20 10-22-2010 at 10:22 pm

    Angry Shark said...

    No, it’s not that it’s a bad review that does it for me. It’s that the description of the film that Guy gives sounds likes something I would sit through, almost but not quite fall asleep, and then realize later that I could have been doing something much better with my time. I’m not dissuaded by negative reviews. I’m dissuaded when critics describe films in a way that sounds like something I wouldn’t dig. Capice?

  • 21 10-23-2010 at 6:50 am

    Ella said...

    Guy, yours is the first negative review I’ve read. The London critics have raved, 4-star reviews–and they are usually “tricky bastards” also.:-) Glad that you agree “the Firth” gives an expert turn. Cheers.

  • 22 10-23-2010 at 7:43 am

    Hunter Tremayne said...

    Well, to be fair to Guy, he’s from South Africa. Colonials tend to have a chip on their shoulder about British royalty.

  • 23 10-23-2010 at 10:44 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Ella: I’ll leave it to them to make their own opinions known, but I know at least two London broadsheet critics who aren’t fans. I’m in a minority, but not a lone voice.

    Hunter: Actually, I’m a UK citizen, and the South African-born son of British and Dutch parents. I wouldn’t call myself a colonial, exactly, but you’re right that I think the royals are a colossal waste of space.

  • 24 10-23-2010 at 10:51 am

    daveylow said...

    Two stars for The King’s Speech seems a bit low. I was little disappointed by the framing of the film, which reminded me sometimes of something made for HBO, which Hooper has done. Though I seem to recall after the screening Hooper saying he was thinking about Stanley Kubrick in choosing some of the shots during the film.

    Normally I don’t go for the British royalty type of film. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Queen. But I was so taken with Firth and Rush in the film and sometimes the pleasure of going to movies derives from great performances.

  • 25 10-23-2010 at 10:55 am

    daveylow said...

    I should add that I saw The King’s Speech with a large audience at the Ryerson theater in Toronto and the majority of the audience was not old. And they loved it. Granted the Toronto film festival audience may not be your typical film going audience.

  • 26 10-23-2010 at 11:55 am

    Hunter Tremayne said...

    Well, Guy, it seems to me that someone who thinks that the Royal Family are a “colossal waste of space” going in is not going to enjoy the movie as much as someone who doesn’t.

  • 27 10-23-2010 at 12:05 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Maybe so. But plenty of great films are made about useless people. Some have even been made about royals.

  • 28 10-24-2010 at 3:22 pm

    tony rock said...

    This review doesn’t dissuade me on the film, but it does confirm my feeling that this won’t win Best Picture. “Minor” stories do not win the big prize. It’s gotta be about something more than what it’s about, if that makes any sense.

  • 29 10-25-2010 at 5:17 am

    Hunter Tremayne said...

    Tony, it’s something more than it’s about: it’s about a King being able to lift up the spirits of an Empire at the advent of World War II. My grandparents were alive during the Blitz. George VI and Elizabeth helped a lot of people through a very dark time. Unlike Guy, I am a Royalist Englishman, and proud of it.