The King's Speech: Toronto and the Lust for Oscar

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Laurie Sparham / The Weinstein Company / Everett Collection

The King's Speech

Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and, for 10 days each September, the Toronto International Film Festival, may be the world's worst place to see movies — the sightlines in this severely curved auditorium make every image look distorted, as if shot with a wide-angle lens — but it's an excellent venue for a surprise party. Last night, introducing The King's Speech, director Tom Hooper mentioned that it was the 50th birthday of the film's leading actor, Colin Firth. Without prompting, a couple thousand members of the audience regaled the star with a chorus of "Happy Birthday," and Firth, who in the film plays the British monarch George VI, bowed to his subjects.

Harvey Weinstein had to be hoping that, 2,200 miles away, the members of the Motion Picture Academy somehow heard the Toronto chorale. Co-honcho of Weinstein Films with his brother Bob, Harvey was the champion of Oscar campaigning back when he and Bob ran Miramax Films. Eleven years in a row, from 1993 to 2003, Miramax secured at least one Best Picture nomination and snagged three wins of the top Oscar: The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and Chicago. The brothers left Miramax in 2005 and have had less luck with their new company; Nine, their expensive try for Oscar gold last season, was a critical, commercial and Academy disaster. But Harvey can still be a brilliant, indefatigable entrepreneur, and The King's Speech could propel him on stage for one more Oscar night.

That's the early word on the movie, which had a sneak peek at the Telluride Film Festival last weekend, then played Toronto — the all-but official launch pad for the awards season — and will open in real movie houses Nov. 26. Every news story on the picture felt obliged to use the money word "Oscar" in its lede. "Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are sure-thing nominees," wrote Deadline Hollywood's Pete Hammond from Telluride. "The film itself is a strong Best Picture prospect to say the least. Harvey is back in the Oscar game with this one, no doubt." The Wrap's Steve Pond, who correctly picked The Hurt Locker as the top Oscar winner this time last year, and who hasn't seen The King's Speech, proclaimed it next March's Best Picture recipient.

Toronto earned its Oscar stripes in 1999, when it premiered American Beauty, an original drama of no special pedigree that went on to win the four top Academy Awards (for picture, director, writer and lead actor). Four of the last five Best Picture winners played the Festival, and amped up their Oscar buzz here. When American Beauty opened, the critic Dave Kehr remarked that it was "just bad enough to win the Oscar for Best Picture." He meant the right kind of bad — ostensibly bold, cannily earnest, hammering home big themes — the kind that Academy members are susceptible to. For they are no less immune to clichés in self-important dramas than 14-year-old boys are to zombie apocalypses and puke jokes; and smart moviemakers know how to angle their preferences and prejudices. The "Oscar genre" has as many rigid conventions as the action adventure or bromance comedy.

For instance, whereas almost no recent box-office hits have been set in the historical past, nearly 60% of the films nominated for best picture from 2000 to 2009 were — at least two of the five nominees every year, and sometimes four or all five (in 2009: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader and most of Slumdog Millionaire). Fifteen of the 50 films nominated in that decade had historical figures as their subjects, from Howard Hughes to Ray Charles, Edward R. Murrow to Harvey Milk. Six of the 50 were set in Britain, and seven took place during World War II or the years leading up to it, with Hitler's shadow looming menacingly and conveniently. (The Academy voters still love to hate the Nazis.) It also helps to focus on a British monarch, as in The Queen, or on a character with a severe physical or emotional disability A Beautiful Mind, Ray, Benjamin Button) that he learns to live with or conquer through the help of those who love him.

The King's Speech adheres to every rule in the Oscar playbook. It's a fact-based drama about a British monarch with a crippling vocal handicap, set in the years 1925 to 1939 and climaxing with Britain's declaration of war against Nazi Germany. Firth plays the Duke of York, known to his family as Bertie, who since youth was derided for his stammering by his father King George V (Michael Gambon) and his elder brother David (Guy Pearce), later King Edward VIII. Bertie's been through dozens of speech therapists — one tells him that smoking cigarettes "calms the nerves and gives you confidence" — before his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) engages the services of an outsider. Worse, an Australian.

Lionel Logue (Rush) is a speech teacher with unorthodox methods. He insists on a first-name intimacy with his patients, instructs them to sing "Swanee River" and use vigorous profanity, probes their childhoods for the trigger to their infirmity. He's Henry Higgins and Helen Keller's Annie Sullivan and Sigmund Freud in a single, smilingly efficient body. It's his job to prepare Bertie, when he becomes George VI after his brother's resignation of the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, to go on the radio and speak to his subjects about Britain's determination to survive and win the war.

Since most of the movie takes place in two locations (Buckingham Palace and Lionel's digs), the question arises: Why is this a film and not a play? Well, in part because a film can summon a full retinue of Brit acting royalty — Claire Bloom, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall, Jennifer Ehle and Anthony Andrews also show up — at their ease in this stately-homes, Masterpiece Theatre atmosphere. And David Seidler's script is a marvel of dramatic point-making: Bertie's sad good nature (telling an autobiographical bedtime fable to his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret), his domination by family and teachers (who made the natural left-hander write right), his discomfort at being addressed as an equal by his Australian tutor and his slow realization of the bond they have forged. ("What are friends for?" asks Lionel lightly, and Bertie replies, "I wouldn't know.") The Duke's breakthrough sentence — "I have a voice!" — has an emotional impact as genuine as it is obvious.

Obvious, though, is the word for Hopper's direction. It amplifies to rock-concert level every pained plosive in Bertie's speech, forces certain characters dangerously close to caricature (so we know who are nature's nobles and who the knaves). This straining for the obvious reduces The King' Speech to an experience that forces sensitive viewers, who prefer nuance over rib-poking, to juggling their response: tsk-tsking the florid directorial gestures even as they want to surrender to the poignant story and acute performances.

Last year, Firth earned an Oscar nomination as another George in another Weinstein drama: he played a homosexual teacher close to suicide in Tom Ford's film of the Christopher Isherwood novel A Single Man. That was a delicate, muted mood piece — a terrific film, but far too subtle and downbeat for the Academy, which ignored it in the top-10 list of Best Picture nominations. The King's Speech makes none of A Single Man's mistakes. The obviousness that makes critics squirm is just what may pound the message into Oscar voters' heads that this one truly is worthy. It's early days, but The King's Speech is just good enough — and, by Dave Kehr's definition, bad enough — to win the big one, and to recertify Toronto as the Festival that makes Oscars.