The Way Back (***1/2) and The King’s Speech (*****)

Both The Way Back and The King’s Speech seemed to beckon in the last 10 days; one carrying the promise of great things from a great director, the other of great things from great actors.

The Way Back [IMDB]: Weir excels at small human beings struggling in/against huge landscapes (Master and Commander [IMDB] and The Mosquito Coast [IMDB]), and this film didn’t disappoint. From the swirling snowstorms of Siberia to the Mongolian plains to the sweep of the Gobi desert The Way Back looks great on the big screen. The acting is respectable, indeed very credible. Among the escapees, Ed Harris gives a fine performance, Colin Farrell is a surprisingly believable Russian gangster and Saoirse Ronan injects some levity into the long trek.

Two things let the film down in my view. The first is the lack of any obvious human tension. Escaping from a Russian Gulag is ‘drama’ to be sure, and so is survival against all odds,  but somehow we are always searching for more than that, we need to know what people are thinking. One of the best, and surely most tense survival stories has to be Touching the Void [IMDB], about Joe Simpson’s escape from Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, which he climbed with Simon Yates. But if we think about it, the tension is not only about whether Simpson can manage to live, but the whole horror of Yates having to cut the line on him, leading to him being on his own. The Way Back lacks any real hook for getting into the minds of the characters. A few small incidents involving Farrell’s originally menacing, but ultimately, just cheeky, gangster are the closest we get.

The second problem is more of a personal one: I have a thing about linguistic authenticity in film. My theory is that you don’t get the real thing if the dialogue is done in accented English, US English or any other non-authentic language. I need to hear the emotion in a character’s voice, even if I have to read subtitles to understand them. Ok, it is not possible to be 100% pure all the time. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto [IMDB] used modern Yucatec Maya, undoubtedly changed since 400 years ago, but real enough from our modern point of view to lend deep credibility to the film (and good on him for using Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ [IMDB] as well). On the other hand, English stands in for Latin and many other languages in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator [IMDB], and it feels acceptable enough in the film (apparently the ever-perfectionist Crowe wanted to use a Spanish accent, and although he was not allowed, I have to say in this case his thinking was right – Maximus was not only a general and a gladiator, but a man whose wife and child were in far-away Spain; the lonesomeness and distance he protrays would surely have been helped by him speaking in a way that continually reminded us he was essentially a foreigner in Rome). Elsewhere, accent-English is to be avoided. Remember Schindler’s List [IMDB]? An otherwise excellent film marred by the use of German accent English. Yes, I know, then we could not have had Liam Neeson in the lead role… well there are plenty of great German language actors I say. Go and see Downfall [IMDB]…

Anyway, what we have here is everyone speaking English most of the time, in various accents. Now, the reality of this film is that there are multiple nationalities and therefore languages, mainly Polish, Russian, plus Ed Harris’s character’s (American) English. To communicate they obviously needed a common language, however, this would have been Russian, probably with some German and/or French. It is a real stretch to imagine that so much English could have been used, and this is my purist complaint: if some element of the film continually pricks a hole in the otherwise oh-so-carefully-constructed reality, it makes it more like a play, less like the authentic immersion directors like Weir are undoubtedly aiming for. Yes, I know, Harris and Farrell don’t speak Russian. But there is not that much dialogue, and they both spoke a bit; a bit more would not have hurt them.

Final comment: there is a lot of space in this film, in the dialogue, in its subject matter. I like films with space, e.g. Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia [IMDB], Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon [IMDB] and Le Grand Bleu [IMDB]. Perhaps this one is worth a second viewing as well.

The King’s Speech [IMDB]: films like this remind me of the total pleasure of the cinema. This is pretty close to a masterpiece, or perhaps a master-class of dramatic acting by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, with an outstanding supporting cast. Not one violent act occurs, not one gunshot, not one car chase, and yet the film is tenser than most serious thrillers. At its core is the road taken by King George VI to conquer his deep fears and insecurities, manifesting exteriorly as a terrible stammer. Firth plays the Prince, and then King utterly convincingly, giving us a man who is moral, intelligent, and quite probably a perfectly good regent – but one who is tormented every step of the way by his acute stammer, vastly exacerbated by the growing need to speak on radio and film. Rush, playing Lionel Logue, the actor-turned-speech therapist, is just as convincing, combining a certain Aussie charm with due professional seriousness, and of course, impeccable diction. There are two wonderful points of dramatic tension (as I am on the theme): the king’s internal battle with his own fears, and the often comic (to us) friction between the king and Logue, a commoner who not only refuses to use any form of royal address, but insists on calling the king ‘Bertie’.

The support: Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as Queen Elizabeth (i.e. the Queen Mother as our generation knew her), regal in public, loving and supportive in private. Timothy Spall absolutely nails Winston Churchill (he has surely played him before somewhere); Guy Pearce plays the abdicating Edward with just the right mix of arrogance and dissolution; the amazing Jennifer Ehle strikes again as Logue’s wife (I am Australian, and I would not have picked her in a hundred years) and lastly the magnificent Michael Gambon’s only fault as the ailing King George V was not to have more lines.

There are many amusing moments, and a few laugh out loud ones as well, but this is a deep and quite moving film. There is no escaping the emotion we all feel for King George as he inexorably heads toward the seeming abyss of his first radio speech to the nation, announcing war with Germany in 1939. No event could be more momentous for a king, nor more awful in failure. Well for those who have not seen it yet, I won’t spoil it: I will just say that it ranks which Touching the Void for pure tension, and that sounds an incredible claim about a film about a speech, then I say: get thee to a cinema. Let’s see an Oscar nomination at least for Firth on this one.

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