In Hollywood terms, Christmas is, like the Golden Globes, only a glittering harbinger of the Oscars. With the gifts starting to pile up, we venture boldly:
The King’s Speech
As masters of speech, British actors know how to stutter. This ranges from the modest (Mike Morgan’s delightful Nosey in The Horse’s Mouth) to the grand (Derek Jacobi’s stammering Roman in I, Claudius).
In The King’s Speech, which is about how George VI surmounted his speech impediment for the first, crucial radio address of his reign, the funniest touch is the casting of Jacobi as Cosmo Lang, the pompous old Archbishop of Canterbury. He e-nun-ci-ates per-fect-ly.
Such fluency is denied the man who will soon be king. Shy, stammering Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), can speak with relative ease only among the family that calls him Bertie. Wife Elizabeth, who later in life will be vastly adored as the Queen Mum, is played by Helena Bonham Carter, with no hint of her lunatic Bellatrix in the Harry Potter films. The marriage, and daughters Elizabeth (the current queen) and Margaret, is heart and hearth for Albert, but the story centers on the odd friendship of Bertie and an Australian émigré speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
Respectful but informal, Logue insists on using first names and on meeting at his dowdy Victorian home (“My turf, my rules”). Self-taught by working with World War I veterans, this lower-rank Henry Higgins has plenty of therapeutic exercises (though not “Moses supposes his toes-es are roses” from Singin’ in the Rain). Intuitively, he realizes that Bertie is vocally still shipwrecked in painful childhood (his father, George V, speaks with the intimidating resonance of Michael Gambon). With Hitler preparing to rip up Europe, the Empire cannot afford a stuttering monarch.
When George dies in 1936, Albert’s brother David becomes Edward VIII, yet in less than a year abdicates to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Among the liberties taken, Guy Pearce plays David as smarter than he was, Stalin was not called “Marshal Stalin” in the ’30s, and Churchill was a keener supporter of Edward VIII than is indicated (Timothy Spall has the Churchillian rumble, if not the bulldog chin). The supporting crew includes Mozart, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Gershwin and even, in full tirade, Hitler.
The film is richly rooted, with splendid trappings, including pea-soup fogs. For all the pomp and protocol, it’s an intimate story about a scared man who must find his voice if he is to rise, in regal stature, above his epaulets. Writer David Seidler, up from an animated version of The King and I, and director Tom Hooper (best known for the hit mini-series on John Adams) deliver an impeccably British, deliciously human, and moving film. I thought Firth should have won the Oscar for A Single Man, and tongue-tied Bertie may bring the prize. Rush (winner for Shine, 1996) can coach him in a great acceptance speech. The film opens Friday, December 17.
Has any movie ever been quite so tortured and tutu’d as Black Swan, to destroy interest in ballet? Natalie Portman, looking almost continuously bewildered, wobbles through it as ballerina Nina. Portman worked hard, but there is more credible dancing in the amusing show-biz slop of Burlesque. Cast as the swan queen in Swan Lake at Lincoln Center, Nina feels driven to dance also as the black swan. Sadly, she’s a cooked goose. Nina’s choreographer (Vincent Cassel, a charmless reduction of Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes) is, like her mother (Barbara Hershey), a grotesque control maniac. Her upstart rival (Mila Kunis) is a witchy sex tease who seems to be Eve Harrington from a lurid Vegas reduction of All About Eve.
Director Darren Aronofsky made something real with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. He has gone back to the hammy bloviations of Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Frosted white and gray tonalities are not warmed by even the surging swoons of Tchaikovsky. Nina endures body morphing, a subway masturbator, near rape, mutilation, a bad drug trip, and (oh, mercy) Winona Ryder as a dancer who becomes a nasty revenger.
As moronic kitsch, this surpasses even Ken Russell’s Tchaikovsky debauch, The Music Lovers. Balletomane Robert Gottlieb, in The New York Review of Books, recently lamented that “the deaths of (Frederick) Ashton and particularly of (George) Balanchine have left in their wake a mourning and depressed generation.” May that generation (and others) never experience Black Swan.
The Kids Grow Up
Lucy Block, aged 18 during The Kids Grow Up, has a blithe grace and big, brown eyes. In one of the most adorable of all kid sequences, the movie cuts back to her as a pre-teen, scared but thrilled by her first ear-piercing. Lucy is the polished apple of daddy’s camera eye. Doug Block has filmed her since infancy, and in this video-notebook he tracks her final New York months before leaving for college. Hooked on domestic documentation, Doug peeled open touchy layers of his parents’ marriage in 51 Birch Street (2006). Lucy sometimes pouts about dad’s doggish devotion but is definitely complicit in the process. She is no Pavlovian puppet.
Lucy’s French boyfriend retreats behind the language barrier. Stepbrother Josh sagely accepts being marginal. Lucy’s mom is both wanly resigned and envious. Born at the dawn of Camcorders, Lucy has been a trailblazer for the Age of Universal Voyeurism, in which we and our loved ones can be the digital center of the cosmos. Intimately itchy, yet never kinky, the film benefits greatly from Lucy being a natural star.
Hemingway’s Garden of Eden
Jack Huston, grandson of the great director John Huston, has the rakish, moustached aura of a ’20s movie star and the classy wardrobe to match in Hemingway’s Garden of Eden. But he has a slender voice, and as Hemingway-ish writer David Bourne he suffers a weird charisma deflation. Shortly into the meandering story, adapted from Papa’s posthumous (1986) and controversial novel, Huston’s hair is dyed silver-blond to match his saucy new wife, Catherine (Mena Suvari). This seems to leach and bleach his rather modest vitality. The film becomes like a travel folder indebted to F. Scott Fitzgerald: Riviera beaches, cocktails, Victrola jazz, a gorgeous Bugatti roadster, and injections of “steamy” sex that are more humid than hungry.