We are in the middle of awards season, and The King’s Speech is gaining speed as an Oscar contender. A month ago it seemed certain to be runner-up to The Social Network as it continued its ticker-tape parade, but it received 12 Oscar nods to The Social Network’s eight, and suddenly it’s the odds-on favorite.
There is talk – mutterings, really, in dark corners of the internet – that an Best Picture win for The King’s Speech would be a travesty, an ugly distortion of justice. That The King’s Speech is an Oscar bait for an older, staler generation, and The Social Network represents the new school and the cutting edge. It’s become yet another Star Wars-Annie Hall, or Pulp Fiction-Forrest Gump, the battle between a historical Oscar-baiting epic and a film that will define a new generation. Stuff and nonsense.
First, let me dismiss the idea that voting for The Social Network would be some sort of recognition of a new breed of filmmaking. The only thing modern about The Social Network is its subject matter, nothing else about that movie seems particularly daring or fresh. It’s a movie that centers around an intermediary negotiating financial settlements in boardrooms, which is something most teenagers very little time doing (Lindsay Lohan’s now too old for a joke here, right? <checking> Yup. Oh, well). It’s a well-told, verbose movie, and if it wins Best Picture, I won’t be in the least aggrieved, because it’s deserving of the accolades it’s received. But there’s no reason to celebrate it for being revolutionary filmmaking. That’s not what that movie is about.
The King’s Speech, meanwhile, is not nearly as traditional as you might be led to believe. It’s directed by first-time filmmaker Tom Hooper, best known as the director of HBO’s acclaimed “John Adams” series. That series, like this one, is marked by an unconventional attitude towards historical stories – no soft close-ups, no sweeping shots of grand vistas, and very little in the way of stirring orchestral music. There are no giant battles as set pieces, no one tries to land a ridiculous accent, and there’s certainly no bodice-ripping. Instead, Hooper tries to introduce you to two characters you have no reason to care about – a very dull king and his slightly bizarre speech therapist – and makes you root for them passionately.
As much as Hooper deserves a great deal of credit for how well the movie works (even during Academy season, I think that directors don't get nearly the credit they deserve), the hero here is Colin Firth. Firth is known as a good actor, but until last year’s A Single Man, he’d never had a vehicle to show just how remarkable a talent he really is. He’s stunning here – he transforms King George VI’s stutter from a tacked-on physical impediment into an internal emotional struggle. You only have to watch Firth’s eyes to see him bursting to get the words out, furious to be held back by his own frailty. The Best Actor trophy has rarely been so little in doubt.
As for Best Picture, in a choice between this and Social Network… I'd say there are no losers in that scenario. Except of course, for...