Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The King's Speech

I have a terrible weakness for this sort of historical costume drama and I was not disappointed tonight. THE KING'S SPEECH features a cast of luminaries that includes Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce, Claire Bloom and Derek Jacobi performing a fine script that is sensitively and intelligently directed and beautiful to look at.

As you might expect from a cast of this calibre, the performances are uniformly fabulous. Firth, Rush and Bonham-Carter do some of the finest work of their careers here.

As with THE BLACK SWAN, this is a film about the nature of performance.
What does it take to prepare for the role of a lifetime, especially if you're an understudy who never expected to have to go on?

This time the hero is not a performer but a prince who rather than ardently desiring the starring role of king has "greatness thrust upon him".
When his brother, Edward VII abdicates for "the woman he loves" as England and its Empire teeters on the precipice of war, the incredibly decent Duke of York instantly ascends to the throne.

In the age of radio, this meant a lifetime of public speaking, broadcast globally. For a diffident man with with a bad stammer, speaking to and for his people is a potential disaster.

THE KING'S SPEECH is nominally about a great moment in history. However, the film is really an intimate portrait of an unlikely friendship between a King(Firth)and his speech therapist, a failed Australian actor(Rush).

Logue may not have a great stage career himself, but he realizes being the King of England is the part of a lifetime and he's not about to let his favourite client pass on a good gig.

The abdication is not romanticized in this film in any way. We see two weak, spoiled people take off leaving others holding a massive bag of duties and responsibilities in a very difficult moment.

In the end, honour, duty, perseverance, loyalty and bravery do carry the day. I enjoyed seeing the good guys prevail in a film with no car chases and explosions only alluded to. This is drama, not melodrama with a fairly stiff upper lip.

Tom Hooper dedicates the film to his grandfather who was killed in WWII. I'm sure he would have appreciated this old-fashioned, lovely hero's journey.

I doubt I'll see many better films this year.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Black Swan

In spite of some great theatre offerings in town this fall, (The Seafarer, The Savannah Dispute and White Christmas all come to mind) I haven't reviewed much theatre or film lately.

There's one simple reason for this: I've been mostly working nights, and the evenings I've had away from my day job, have been spent onstage or on camera as a performer, rather than as a paying customer. Mea culpa.

New Year's Resolution #1: more blogging in 2011.

So in the last week of the year, my lovely housemate Brenda, arranged for me to join her, and a few friends at a screening of "The Black Swan".  Director Darren Arnofsky has done interesting work in the past, (The Wrestler) and I was anxious to see what he would do with ballet as his subject.

We were not alone in our enthusiasm. The theatre was so packed, we had to sit right at the front, a thing I hadn't done since my days at TIFF screenings, in years gone by. The curved screen, and the constantly moving camera made for unsettling viewing.

It's an unsettling picture. Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is chosen from the corps de ballet to replace an aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder chanelling Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard") and dance one of classical ballet's most challenging roles: Odette/Odile the white and black swans in "Swan Lake".

Nina is a rigid perfectionist, sandwiched between a narcissistic, suffocatingly controlling, failed dancer of a mother (Barbara Hershy) and a Svengali-like director (a seductive Vincent Cassel) whose manipulations border on sexual and emotional sadism.

The tightly wound dancer begins to unravel under the stressors of both preparations, and expectations, to say nothing of jealous and competitive peers. She is driven to the brink of madness, as she tries to achieve both the technical perfection and the emotional depth and passion required to completely evince the duality of the role.

Arnofsky plays an interesting game with perception and reality in a portrayal of a discipline that is surreal to begin with. The film is told almost completely from the point-of-view of Portman's character and her increasingly intense emotional state affects our perception of the people surrounding her. Is it drugs? Is it a dream? Is it insanity? Or is it just a great performer surrendering fully to the heightened state necessary to play a great dramatic role?

I felt the "hot" lesbian sex was just a way to get straight men to see a film about about ballet and the swan-morphing went too far: come on, webbed feet?

However, a film this passionatly intense, beautifully shot and brilliantly acted is a rare treat. The costumes by Rodarte are perfection.

The film's misssteps are more than compensated for by its pleasures. Get there early if you want a good seat.